A Tale of Two Fact Checks

A Tale of Two Fact Checks
Rick Wood /Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP
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Kalev Leetaru, in his piece inaugurating RealClearPolitics’ Fact Check Review, highlighted some of the problems inherent to fact checking as it is being conducted today. Fact checkers, for example, have the habit of “checking” subjective opinions rather than verifiable facts. This leaves them open to claims of bias, especially given that America’s political life — like any other — tends to involve hyperbole.

Also problematic are some of the processes used by the fact checkers. PolitiFact, one of the most respected outfits in the field, uses a scale to rate truthfulness that even the organization’s founder admits is purely subjective. Since the methodology is treated by the fact checkers as propriety information, this leaves the reader wondering what standards the fact checkers use when rendering their verdicts. Why are we told that a simple truth requires more context? What moves the lever between “half true” and “mostly false”? These would be merely philosophical questions if not for the awesome power fact checkers hold over information sharing.

It’s not hard to spot the inconsistencies. Two pieces, published by PolitiFact within days of each other and written by the same author, provide a representative sample of the sort of contradictions the careful reader will notice.

The first was published on March 14 and concerned the nonpartisan race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. PolitiFact’s Tom Kertscher evaluated a claim by Rebecca Dallet (pictured), considered to be the more liberal candidate in the race. Dallet said that her opponent Michael Screnock (also pictured) had “vowed to uphold the platform of the NRA.” Kertscher rates this claim as “half true.” But there is no indication that it is true at all. Kertscher examines the evidence and finds that although Screnock is endorsed by the NRA, his answers to the group’s questionnaire indicate that he “pledged to uphold the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, rather than to be a political activist.” “But,” notes Kertscher, “he didn’t vow to take a position on policies or laws or cases that might be part of a broader NRA platform.” Kertscher offers no explanation as to why this warrants any verdict but false.

Bias against gun owners does not seem to be the issue with Kertscher, however. In a March 16 piece, he rates a claim by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a possible Democratic presidential candidate. A supporter of universal background checks on firearm sales, Bullock asserted that one-quarter of guns are sold without background checks. Kertscher calls this claim “mostly false.” His rationale was that a January 2017 study showed that 22 percent of gun owners overall said that they obtained their guns without a background check. On the other hand, only 13 percent of those who purchased guns said that they did so without a check. Kertscher writes that “[t]he lower figure applies here, given that Bullock’s claim is about gun sales.” He further notes that the 22 percent figure is “close to Bullock’s figure. But it takes into account people who acquired guns either by purchasing them, or by simply receiving them, for example as a gift.” (Kertscher did not respond to an email request from RCP for insight into how he assigned the ratings.) 

In could be perceived by some readers that Bullock was held to a higher standard than Dallet.  Dallet made a claim that wasn’t “half true” -- it wasn’t true at all. Her opponent did not pledge fealty to the NRA’s legislative agenda. Bullock was also incorrect, although it could be argued that his claim was more in the spirit of being true. The central aspect of his point is that he finds it disturbing that so many people acquire firearms without a background check. Whether those guns were purchased or obtained in some other way would strike many readers as having little bearing on the crux of Bullock’s argument.

Fact checkers have the unique ability to prevent the flow of information. This makes inconsistencies in their rating process troubling. Because they play such an outsized role in our national discourse, we need to know more about what they do and how they do it.

Bill Zeiser is editor of RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review.



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