TAMPA — “Perhaps if we all ignore PolitiFact, they’ll eventually go away,” went the lede of a Weekly Standard story distributed here on Tuesday. Not likely. Love them or hate them, PolitiFact and other journalistic factchecking entities are inescapable on this year’s campaign trail. Their ubiquity invites criticism—and, lately, questions about whether their work has any effect.
“What if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?” asked Atlantic editor James Bennet, in a piece about the Romney campaign’s refusal to pull a campaign ad that was awarded “Four Pinocchios” by The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker.” (“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by factcheckers,” said Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who also declared that factcheckers have “jumped the shark.”) Others have noted that the factcheckers’ real-time dissections of the convention proceedings hasn’t actually stopped politicians from salting their speeches with lies, exaggerations, and half-truths.
Saying that the factcheckers are ineffective and therefore irrelevant doesn’t strike me as a particularly convincing argument; as CJR’s Brendan Nyhan noted today, the continued existence of false statements does not mean that the factcheckers—or other journalists who push back against misleading political rhetoric in traditional articles—are having no effect. More compelling are the criticisms of the factcheckers’ methodology. One recurring complaint involves the snappy names that the factcheckers like to give their truth scales—“Pinocchios,” or the “Truth-o-Meter”—and a general confusion over what these ratings mean and how they are determined. The PolitiFact Truth-o-Meter, for instance, has six settings, ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.”
As Nyhan has previously argued, this scheme “doesn’t work well for irresponsible and unsubstantiated claims,” such as Harry Reid’s unfounded suggestion that Romney hadn’t paid taxes in a decade, “that can’t be definitively falsified.” And even for claims that can be situated along a true/false axis, since the Truth-o-Meter is essentially a rhetorical construct, it’s sometimes hard to tell why a given item merits a “Half True” rather than a “Mostly True”—or, for that matter, a “Mostly False.” You can see why some critics think that the verdicts are rendered casually, and without much thought.
That’s not quite true. Wednesday afternoon, I sat in on a PolitiFact editorial meeting and watched as editor Bill Adair and two colleagues debated how to rate a statement made by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley during her speech at the RNC the night before. Reporter Jon Greenberg had filed an item dissecting Haley’s statement—about Obama and the NLRB ostensibly suing the Boeing corporation—and suggested giving it a “Half True” rating. Adair and his staff were reviewing Greenberg’s piece to see if the rating was warranted.
Before any PolitiFact item goes up, three separate editors must agree on its Truth-o-Meter rating. They reach a consensus by consulting a checklist intended to systematically address the suitability of any given rating. First, they examine the item’s “ruling statement”—the assertion that is being factchecked. Adair starts the discussion: “So the ruling statement is that Nikki Haley ‘says President Obama and his National Labor Relations Board’ sued Boeing over its decision to open a plant in South Carolina.”
“Is that literally true?” Adair asks. “I would say no,” he answers. “They didn’t sue Boeing.” Adair’s right: the NLRB filed a complaint, not a lawsuit; Boeing was told to attend a hearing, not appear in court. A very brief discussion ensues, and all three editors agree that the statement isn’t literally true. But, in PolitiFact’s world, just because a statement isn’t literally true doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false. Adair moved on to a second question: “Is there another way to read the statement?”
“Yeah, I guess on how we interpret ‘sued,’” says Adair, noting that the word might be used as shorthand for a process that is similar to filing a lawsuit in court. And while Barack Obama himself didn’t file the complaint, Adair notes, it’s not necessarily unreasonable to hold Obama accountable for the actions of the NLRB. Again, a brief discussion follows, and the consensus seems to be that Haley’s statement might be read in a non-literal manner.