PolitiFact Ohio practices opinion journalism under the guise of fact-checking. They often get things wrong — particularly, we’ve noticed, in their coverage of U.S. Senate candidates Sherrod Brown (Democrat) and Josh Mandel (Republican). So we bring you PolitiFact or Fiction, a semi-regular review of pronouncements issued by PolitiFact Ohio, a blog run by staff at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and supported by Politifact.com.
By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
PolitiFact Ohio was unfair to Sherrod Brown once.
Just once, and barely.
In January, Brown claimed, “More than one in five of veterans aged 20 to 24 can’t find a job to support their family or to ease the transition to civilian life.”
PolitiFact Ohio rated the claim “mostly true,” even though the unemployment number for male veterans 18-24 at the time of the fact check was 21.9 percent.
Now, Brown may have slipped up slightly in the age range, but given minimum enlistment ages, it’s safe to assume there aren’t enough teenage veterans to produce a different number for the slightly smaller subset of veterans 20-24.
PolitiFact didn’t quibble with that, or with the possible difference between male veterans and all veterans (or take notice of them, either).
PolitiFact’s issue was that the unemployment rate for non-veterans in the same age group was 19.7 percent, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics said was an insignificant statistical difference.
“But Brown wasn’t citing the statistic to contrast it with the unemployment of non-veterans,” PolitFact pointed out. “Rather, he used … the statistic to argue that the country owes it to service members to help them transition back to civilian life.”
So why ding him? His factual claim was, well, factual.
Since the fact check was done, the 2011 numbers have come in, and it turns out Brown’s claim was an understatement. The unemployment rate for male veterans in that age group last year was 29.1 percent, compared to 17.6 percent in the same age group of the general population.
So three potential quibbles with a solid fact lead to a finding of “mostly true.” It’s not the sort of injustice that sparks revolutions, or proclamations that “this foul deed shall smell above the earth,” or even whimpers into a pillow.
It’s only the most severe unkindness PolitiFact Ohio has ever shown Brown.
Usually, the fact-checkers cut him plenty of slack, not just with his policy arguments, but with his numbers.
When Brown said “we buy 35 percent of all Chinese exports” and the actual number turned out to be 25 percent, they gave him a “half-true.”
We’re not sure which half. If you take out the middle four words, “we buy… Chinese imports” is true. You can argue Brown’s claim is close enough, or that it’s way off the mark, but whatever you call it, it isn’t half-true.
The finding illustrates the absurdity of PolitiFact’s rating system. Almost all quantification involves rounding. It would be simple enough for PolitiFact to set parameters for all numeric claims — a 10 percent margin of error, say. It would be arbitrary, but at least it would be consistent.
Its failure to do so leads to case-based reasoning and the intrusion of sympathy. That’s what seems to have happened here, because no math teacher would give partial credit for an answer of 35 instead of 25.
The fact-checkers went with “half-true” because that happened to be the ranking they gave a claim they found similar: Sen. Rob Portman had said that U.S. exports per capita ($3,400 in 2009) were lower than Ethiopia’s ($19), which tells you more about PolitiFact than facts.
In both cases, they treated the mistake as a slip of the tongue, which is exactly the sort of divining of intent that PolitiFact knows it should try to avoid. Site editor Robert Higgs told the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, “We don’t call somebody a liar at PolitiFact Ohio, probably because of the intent it is showing.”
Fair enough. But the fact-checkers don’t show the same courtesy to Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
Last September, Mandel claimed on a radio show that the majority of Brown’s contributions in the last quarter had come from out of state. His spokesman later told the fact-checker that “Josh misspoke,” that he had meant the current year, not the most recent quarter.
Cleveland Plain Dealer Bureau Chief Stephen Koff checked the numbers, and wrote:
“They show that Mandel was wrong about the most recent quarter, which ended June 30. Brown got the majority of his contributions from Ohioans: $623,049 in state, compared with $609,506 out of state.
The previous quarter, however, more money came to Brown from out of state — so much more that, when you put the two quarters together, the totals tipped the balance to the out-of-state side: $1,098,899 from Ohio, compared with $1,225,202 from out of state.
So did Mandel get a “half-true” rating? No, he got a “false,” because Koff reasoned that Mandel had misrepresented the context, as “data that includes Brown’s current term but also goes back to his days in the House of Representatives, crunched on a regular basis by the Center for Responsive Politics for every member of Congress, shows that a majority of Brown’s donations have always been from Ohio.”
It’s true. Plain-old Congressmen don’t attract much interest out of state, but senators do. So the relevant question – to the degree the issue matters at all – is how much money Brown has raised in-state as a senator.
Koff mentioned some data from a subscription service, which we have not seen, but he also relied on the Center for Responsive Politics, whose information is a bit dated.
A CRP graphic shows 63 percent of some $6.4 million Brown has raised since 2007 has come from in-state. But Brown has raised around $10.3 million since 2007, and a lot of the money that’s come in since CRP updated its graphic has been from out of state.
We don’t have state-by-state data going back to 2007, but we have it for 2011 and 2012. Several of these quarters have come since Koff wrote his comparison, so it’s not apples-to-apples, but it does vindicate Mandel’s point.
For 2011 and 2012, Federal Election Commission filings show that Brown has receipts of $3.5 million from out of state compared to $2.9 million from in-state, once you include his share of joint fundraiser proceeds.
Sorting spreadsheets, Mandel noticed Brown’s increasing out-of-state support early on, said something, and got made out to be a liar for his trouble.
While PolitiFact gives certain politicians the benefit of the doubt on gross misstatements, it slanders others for a slip of the tongue. This is non-science.
The fact-checkers may come to a different opinion, but that’s all it is.
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