The state GOP’s 86-page report alleged many of the same problems that Ohio Watchdog and others have found with the news franchise — namely, that its rulings favor one side, leaps to conclusions unsupported by the facts, and treats political opinions and philosophies as factual assertions.
The Republican report, issued last week, cautions candidates about cooperating with the fact-checkers, stating that “acquiescing in continuing one-sided coverage presented as disinterested ‘fact checking’ is not an acceptable alternative for the Republican Party.”
PolitiFact purports to check facts, but dozens of critics, left and right, assert that it’s really in the opinion business.
“It’s like playing God. It’s dangerous, and very subjective,” Schorsch said.
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, a journalism center affiliated with the Times, acknowledges that there is “more inclination of people to debate the rulings” of PolitiFact, which measures politicians’ statements on a “truth-o-meter.”
Edmonds noted that the 2011 designated national “Lie of the Year” was particularly controversial.
PolitiFact editors selected the Democratic Party line that Republicans voted “to end Medicare,” while the winner in PolitiFact’s reader poll was the Republican claim that “zero jobs” were created by the economic stimulus.
Still, Edmonds calls PolitiFact a “successful franchise” for the Tampa Bay Times.
“It is now in partnerships with a lot of other papers, with staffers trained in Tampa Bay,” he said.
But there has been controversy journalistically. One example from the Virginia GOP report makes the problem clear.
The excerpt below is found on pp. 21-24 of the report (repetitive citations redacted):
PolitiFact rated as “half true” Virginia U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s claim that “less government spending equals more private sector jobs” when it said the congressman “has focused on two topics since becoming House majority leader in January: spending and jobs.”
Jacob Geiger, in his March 16, 2011 PolitFact report noted that Cantor, who represents District 7, “linked the two in a March 4 news release. ‘To put it simply: less government spending equals more private sector jobs,’” Geiger wrote.
“We set out to see if economists — and past economic data — agree with Cantor, who returned to this theme in a March 15 press conference with other Republicans,” Geiger said.
“Cantor may be right with his prescription of lower spending to spur higher job growth. But he goes too far when he asserts a cut equals more private sector jobs. No one knows for sure. The congressman is presenting an economic theory as established fact. We rate this claim Half True,” Geiger’s PolitiFact article concluded.
But PolitiFact admits that private-sector growth soared during periods in which the government cut spending:
“First we looked for occasions where government spending has decreased,” Geiger wrote.
“As the U.S. economy returned to peacetime status (after World War II), government spending fell by 40.4 percent in the 1946 fiscal year, 37.5 percent the next year and 13.7 percent the year after that.
“In 1946, private sector employment soared, driven by millions of veterans who came home, left the military and returned to former jobs or took new ones. Strong employment growth continued in 1947 before tailing off in 1948.”
Geiger also examined the post-Korean War period.
“What about the mid-1950s? Government spending fell during two consecutive fiscal years. Private sector jobs dropped in 1954 by 585,000, grew by 2.3 million in 1955 and then climbed by 673,000 in 1956,” he acknowledged.
And after the 1964-1965 spending cuts:
“In the final case the U.S. economy added more than 2 million private sector jobs in both 1965 and 1966,” Geiger found.
Despite empirical evidence supporting Cantor’s position, PolitiFact ruled against him.
Geiger reported: “Not all economists are convinced the cuts will have a positive impact on jobs. Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said the short-term impact of a spending cut is usually negative.”
The Virginia GOP cites scores of other examples that suggest a left-wing bias in PolitiFact’s scoring in the Times-Dispatch. The analysis noted that the paper’s PolitiFact column branded Republican statements false more often than those of Democrats.
Virginia Republican Party officials declined repeated requests for further comment, but Edmonds speculated that Republicans come in for more criticism because they are the party in control of state government — not because of any built-in political bias by PolitiFact.
“Naturally, the rulings focus on the majority party,” he reasoned. “It’s also possible that one side is making more outrageous or newsworthy claims that attract attention.”
Warren Fiske, who runs the Times-Dispatch’s PolitiFact operation, said, “We do not try match every truth-o-meter item on a Republican with one on a Democrat. We are not obliged to assign a false rating to a Democrat just because we gave one to a Republican.
“PolitiFact Virginia is not about mathematical balance between parties in our ratings. We’re about making calls on political statements that are in the news,” he said in a lengthy explanation on the PolitiFact Virginia website.
Bill Adair, who runs the Tampa Bay Time’s national PolitiFact office in Washington, D.C., deferred comment to Richmond.
Schorsch said that despite its journalistic shortcomings, PolitiFact is a profit center for the Tampa Bay Times. He estimated that state franchises could net the newspaper “$25,000 to $50,000 annually.”
Edmonds could not confirm those figures, but said PolitiFact thrives on the response it gets — positive or negative.
“It’s very clear to me that they look at both sides. It’s a redeployment of political coverage and it promotes discussion,” he said.