Is PolitiFact now campaigning for the President?

by Dustin Siggins | August 18, 2012 8:04 pm

Recently, the fact-checking organizations and failed to properly analyze an ad by President Obama claiming that Mitt Romney pays a lower tax rate than the average American. Just Facts President Jim Agresti and I subsequently hammered[1] both organizations[2] for what appears to be a severe case of intellectual dishonesty.

Unfortunately, this is an increasingly common problem at PolitiFact. Conservatives rightly point to a liberal bent at Fact Check, but the organization is pretty solid at analyzing what’s going on with claims by members of both major political parties. On the other hand, with the arrival of the general election and the otherwise politically-quiet month of August, PolitiFact seems to have gone from being a respectable, if liberal-leaning, organization to a campaign slot for Obama.

This Obama bias was shown in a recent claim [3]by PolitiFact Wisconsin (PFW) that a Tweet by Obama national co-chair and actress Eva Longoria about Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is “half-true.” From the Tweet:

“Today Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, who wants to cut Pell Grant scholarships for nearly 10 million students!”

Again, PFW ranks this claim as “half-true.” Their primary evidence? An unsubstantiated claim by President Obama in April 2012:

Fortunately, our colleagues at PolitiFact National evaluated [4]a similar statement made by Obama himself in April 2012, a few days after the GOP-controlled House approved Ryan’s budget resolution. (The plan didn’t pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.)

Obama said that if spending reductions in the resolution “were to be spread out evenly,” nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each. The White House told our colleagues the president was referring to the Pell Grant program.

So, Ryan’s plan does not specify cuts to Pell Grants. Obama is simply applying the total spending cuts in the plan evenly across the overall budget to derive a Pell Grant number.

This alone should make PolitiFact’s claim laughable. However, following a link from the PFW analysis to the Department of Education’s website, one sees the Department has requested[5] Pell Grants whose cost will total $36.629 billion — meaning that in a budget proposal that spends nearly one hundred times what the Department has requested, PolitiFact is making big assumptions. And while the liberal Center for Budget & Policy Priorities (CBPP) makes the claim[6] that Pell Grants would take $166 billion in “cuts” over ten years if the Ryan/House budget were to be made, those “cuts” are assumed from the language of the budget proposal, not directly stated by the budget proposal.

PFW continues to shoot itself in the proverbial foot as the article goes further. It turns out most of their analysis is based upon a “he said, she said” situation: also looked at Pell Grants and Ryan’s plan. The University of Pennsylvania-based fact checkers concluded[7]“it is certainly true that Ryan’s budget would require deep spending cuts,” but “it is hard to know what impact Ryan’s budget would have on specific programs because the plan contains so few details.”

We also sought input from Gillian Morris, spokeswoman for Obama’s campaign in Wisconsin, and Kevin Seifert, campaign manager for Ryan, who remains on the November 2012 ballot for his House seat.

Obama’s campaign cited an April 2012 opinion [8]column[9] by The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, which claims without evidence that 1 million students would lose Pell grants altogether. But that wasn’t Obama’s or Longoria’s claim. The campaign also provided a March 2012 blog [10]post[11] by Obama’s Office of Management and Budget director, but it uses the same assumptions the president did in his claim.

Ryan’s plan would make fewer students eligible for Pell money, according to an article[12] in the conservative National Review cited by Ryan’s spokesman. But while bringing Pell spending “under control,” the budget would nevertheless maintain the maximum Pell grant at $5,500, Ryan wrote[13] in response to criticism of his plan.

But it’s not over yet! In its closing, PFW makes its “half-true” rating even less believable:

We’re giving Longoria the same rating Obama got for making a claim that is partially accurate but leaves out important details — Half True.

To this writer, a “partially accurate” claim should get a “half-true” rating. That is, after all, basically the definition of “partially accurate.” To leave out important details on a partially accurate claim means the claim should either be “mostly false” or “false.”


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