Up is Half-Down: Lessons from Politifact

The Democratic corners of the internet are abuzz with outrage at Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” award today.  Politifact had no factual issues with Democratic attacks on Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher proposal in the 2011 budget resolution, but still called it a lie, because it wasn’t very nice to Republicans.

Journalistic “fact checkers” have gained controversy recently, with neither side’s partisans particularly happy with their results.  From a self-congratulatory sense of “balance,” mutual partisan unhappiness is a sign of success.  For those of us who have to negotiate with fact-checkers’ peculiar sense of fairness it is obnoxious.

Here is my own story.

In the 2010 cycle I worked for then-Rep. Debbie Halvorson’s unsuccessful re-election campaign.  Her opponent, Adam Kinzinger, ran this ad against her.

The ad was demonstrably incorrect.  It relied on rising unemployment to make the claim that “since Debbie Halvorson’s been in politics, Illinois has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs” (or 683,000, if one went off of their graphic).  The problem was, this was not the case using any metric of employment, as my fact check demonstrated at the time.  Since Halvorson first pursued office, the state gained 400,000 jobs.  Since she entered the state senate, it had lost 4,900, and since she entered Congress, 34,700.

They incorrectly used unemployment statistics as jobs “lost.”  It would be fine and defensible to state that the unemployment rate had skyrocketed using the same numbers.  Alas, the ad did not say that.  It referred to “lost jobs” while Kinzinger harped on reduced payrolls to China and several bordering states.

Politifact, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the ad was “half true”:

“Kinzinger would have been entirely justified making an ad that said the state had lost 135,000 jobs since Halvorson had been elected to the legislature, or 208,000 jobs since she was elected to Congress. Certainly it would have made for an easier fact-check. But he didn’t. Instead, we’re left with one valid statistic that the state gained 310,500 jobs during Halvorson’s political career, and another statistic that shows that the state’s economy fell far behind in creating enough jobs to keep up with population growth. The math can be complicated, but this one adds up to Half True.”

Of course, that’s not even in the ad.  Nor, I might add, did Politifact come up with any of these statistics on their own; this was all a result of a back-and-forth between both campaigns’ researchers.  

But what difference does it make if what the ad actually said was demonstrably incorrect?  The important thing is that the number of jobs gained/lost in Illinois concurrent with the political career of one then-congressmember had finally been sorted out.

Halfway, at least.


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