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The Problem With PolitiFact Wisconsin

Truth is in the eyes of 'Journal Sentinel' editors

Dec. 14, 2011
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Newspaper editors like to say that if you're being criticized by all sides, you must be doing something right. By that measure, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact Wisconsin feature must be perfect. No one is happy with it.

But more likely, the Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact is doing something wrong. When you hold yourself up as an arbiter of truth, you'd better get it right. Too often, PolitiFact Wisconsin misses.

PolitiFact is designed to be entertaining, with its Truth-O-Meter graphic and flaming "pants on fire" rating. When the Journal Sentinel bought the Wisconsin franchise in September 2010 from the St. Petersburg Times, where it originated, it made a big commitment of resources at a time when the news staff and coverage was shrinking, assigning the equivalent of three full-time, experienced staffers and giving it a lot of page 2 space. That commitment has paid off in a sense, since it's well read, both online and in print, and gets a lot of attention from elected officials, politicians, activists and bloggers.

But has the Journal Sentinel's commitment to PolitiFact Wisconsin actually helped its readers to sort fact from fiction? That's another matter entirely.

Cynical, Negative and Subjective

PolitiFact's stated mission is "to help you find the truth in politics," not just amuse readers, and there it is off the mark.

It starts with the unstated, cynical premise that those who practice politics are habitual liars, and its "fact checking" puts the burden of proof on those who make statements. For example, when Gov. Jim Doyle said a year ago that he had a legal obligation to continue to bargain with state unions, PolitiFact produced a 1,500-word essay that attempted to prove him wrong but failed to do so. The result? Doyle's unrefuted statement was labeled "half true."

That negative outlook has produced nearly three times as many false ratings as true (198-68). Last summer, PolitiFact changed "barely true" to "mostly false," which also tilted the field toward the negative.

The dreaded "pants on fire" rating is defined as: "The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim." But the phrase comes from the taunt well known to every schoolchild, which begins with "Liar! Liar!" That suggests premeditation; people don't "lie" accidentally.

Truth, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. PolitiFact's ratings, although spelled out on the website, are still subjective. They are made after a reporter has investigated and parsed every word of the chosen statement, often at considerable length, sometimes wandering into dead ends and irrelevant musings.

The reporter can recommend a rating, but three editors decide it. That explains why the rating sometimes seems like a non sequitur welded onto the end of the narrative. It is a good guess that many readers go straight to the brief summary, or read the headline, a couple of paragraphs and check the Truth-O-Meter. 

Missing the Point

In addition to being negative and subjective, PolitiFact often examines a needle under a microscope while missing the haystack, checking some minor point while ignoring much larger, more important issues.

During the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, the paper investigated whether Russ Feingold had ever practiced law and whether his TV commercial really was filmed in front of his house (both true), sort of trivial matters. In contrast, the Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact completely ignored Ron Johnson's false claim in a TV spot that Feingold voted for "government takeover of health care." That claim by Republicans was the 2010 "Lie of the Year" for the national version of PolitiFact, but the Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact let Johnson, Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch all get away with saying the lie of the year.

Similarly, Feingold earned a "pants on fire" rating for saying he had been outspent by his opponents in every Senate election. While Feingold totaled up all of the money spent by his opponents to arrive at his conclusion, PolitiFact used a different formula and counted all of Feingold's spending during a two-year cycle but not the money spent by his Republican opponents to attack him before the primary. Only the primary winner actually was his opponent, PolitiFact said, and therefore Feingold got caught in a "lie."

When One Wisconsin Now (OWN) criticized Gov. Scott Walker for $140 million in corporate tax giveaways in the midst of a budget crisis, it used the word "spending" to describe the $140 million. That's not spending, PolitiFact said, it's $140 million less in the treasury. OWN got a "pants on fire" even though its point was correct: Walker's corporate tax breaks decreased the state's revenues by $140 million.

Democrats have taken some solace in how badly Gov. Scott Walker has fared, with 27 of 39 statements by him falling into one of the three false categories. His .308 average would be great in baseball, but stinks in politics.

But Democrats and liberal groups have a long string of negative rulings themselves.

And don't think that the newspaper is not capable of using PolitiFact to punish politicians when the editors get their backs up.

Ask Tom Barrett, who got a "pants on fire" rating after he quoted some Journal Sentinel stories in a TV commercial criticizing Walker for mismanaging Milwaukee County's finances, mostly because Barrett's ad wasn't an exact replica of the paper's page layout and stories. The paper said Barrett's claims might be correct, but it was "evaluating the manner in which they are presented." That finding was conveniently used by the paper's endorsed candidate, Walker, as the basis for a vicious negative TV spot with Barrett appearing to burn in hell.

Even accurately quoting the newspaper itself is no guarantee of a "true" rating, as state Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) discovered. He got a "mostly false" rating for claiming that Republican cuts to Wisconsin school budgets were the largest in the nation, although his evidence included a Journal Sentinel story that said virtually that very thing.

National PolitiFact has just announced its finalists for 2011's "Lie of the Year," and the Democrats' charge that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget will end Medicare made the list, even though it's true. Ryan's plan ends the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program and forces seniors to ultimately enroll in private coverage, the Center for American Progress says.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who must be Paul Ryan's worst nightmare, said: "I'll just quote the blogger Duncan Black, who summarizes this as saying that 'when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we'll call the pizza the Marines.' The point is that you can name the new program Medicare, but it's an entirely different program—call it Vouchercare—that would offer nothing like the coverage that the elderly now receive."

As Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann character would say, "And that's the truth."


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