Truth Be Told

Huffington's post on PolitiFact misses the mark

Arianna Huffington used her holiday Monday to belatedly attack the St. Petersburg Times’s PolitiFact Web site for its unfavorable verdict on a statement she made sparring with Liz Cheney on ABC’s This Week in June. But a look at PolitiFact’s findings and Huffington’s grievances reveals there isn’t much to the complaint.

The This Week exchange in question begins with Huffington, as quoted by Politifact.

“The truth is that right now we have precisely the regulatory system that the Bush-Cheney Administration wanted—full of loopholes, full of cronies and lobbyists filling the very agencies they’re supposed to be overseeing,” she said, adding a bit later, “Right here, we have the poster child of Bush-Cheney crony capitalism. Halliburton (was) involved in this, and we haven’t said (anything) about that. They after all were responsible for cementing the well. Here’s Halliburton, after it defrauded the American taxpayer (of) hundreds of millions of dollars is involved again…” 

Cheney then interrupted.

Cheney: “Her assertion that Halliburton defrauded the U.S. government—”

Huffington: “It did. It did.” 

Cheney: “—that it was Bush-Cheney cronyism—these are the left’s talking points—”

Huffington: “It did—hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq.”

Cheney: “Arianna, it is absolutely not true. It is absolutely not true.”

Huffington: “Okay, I’m so glad PolitiFact is going to be checking this. I’m so glad.”

Careful what you wish for.

Huffington was not so glad when PolitiFact checked the statement and found her claim to be only “Half True.” (The Web site’s “Truth-o-Meter” offers six possible rulings: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False, and Pants on Fire.)

In the finding, PolitiFact noted that through its subsidiary KBR—contracted by the military to build bases, cook food for soldiers, do laundry etc.—Halliburton had overcharged the government for services; what’s more, the Justice Department is suing KBR for “’knowingly including impermissible costs’ in its bills.” But the fact-checker Web site argued that intent to defraud the government was difficult to prove.

In evaluating Huffington’s statement, we’re most bothered by her use of the word “defrauded.” Some of the overbilling in Iraq appears to have been done from haste or inefficiency, or even in a desire to please military officials in the field without regard for cost. Whether the waste in contracting constitutes fraud is still being examined.

A month after the “Half True” finding, Huffington shot off her almost 2,000-word rebuttal through The Huffington Post. Claiming that the evidence PolitiFact had accrued was enough to verify her claim that Halliburton had defrauded the American taxpayer, Huffington writes that the finding of Half True was “an object lesson in equivocation, and a prime exhibit of the kind of muddled thinking that dominates Washington and allows the powerful to escape accountability.”

This kind of populist bombast no doubt goes down well on the Huffington Post, where the author plays to a very friendly, often equally riled-up, readership. But we point out that being careful with the facts, being certain of statements before they are made—and certainly, knowing when to concede and correct when those statements are examined and found to be only almost or nearly verifiably true—is the staple of good journalism. No matter who the statement is leveled at. PolitiFact’s finding is not equivocation; it is nuance. And we welcome more of it in the soundbite-driven political discourse.

Huffington should note, too, the nuance in PolitiFact’s rating system. While “Half True” sounds a little unflattering as a label, it’s a badge of accuracy as defined by PolitiFact in its “About” page.

HALF TRUE—The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Taking that definition, PolitiFact is essentially affirming what Huffington said as “accurate” and, in its analysis, providing the “important details,” “context,” and nuance she could not get out on a Sunday morning news show. In their words:

In ruling on Huffington’s statement, we find much in the public record to support her statement, most notably the Justice Department lawsuit. Certainly there have been hundreds of millions of dollars that Halliburton’s KBR attempted to charge the government that have been denied. Government audits of KBR’s work in Iraq will likely continue for some time, and we do not expect a final accounting on these fronts anytime soon. Huffington glossed over some of these points in her back and forth with Liz Cheney. There’s also much evidence that makes us believe that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to waste and inefficiency, not deceitful fraud. So we rate Huffington’s statement Half True.

PolitiFact’s handling of the situation was exemplary, the site acting with the transparency befitting an organization positioning itself as a kind of truth police. In fact, it was the publication of three letters supporting Huffington and criticizing PolitiFact’s verdict on PolitiFact’s own “Mailbag” page that inspired Huffington to write on the issue a month after the Half True rating had been published.

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair commented on Huffington’s piece on Media Bistro’s FishbowlDC.

“I respect Arianna’s right to disagree with us, but I think we got it right,” Adair told FishbowlDC in an e-mail. “We spent several days researching her statement and found that while there was the overbilling she cites, there wasn’t clear-cut proof it was fraud. So Half True was the right call.”

Going by the parameters of PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter, we think it’s the right call too. A cautious call, true—read the full text of the finding and there seems to be something fishy going on with KBR—but right.

Perhaps it’s just another case of the difference between the old guard, represented here somewhat ironically by a rigorous, old-school, fact-checking Web site, and the new guard in Huffington and her Post.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.