PolitiFact Faces Its Conservative Critics

PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that began at the St. Petersburg Times and has been franchised out to a number of news organizations across the country, has long been a target of conservatives who allege a liberal bias.

Little surprise, then, that the relatively new local version - operated by the Providence Journal - is facing a similar critique from local conservatives. ted Nesi, over at WPRI, mentions former GOP Congressional candidate John Loughlin's recent criticism. Here is another, from William A. Jacobson, who offers this critique on his "Legal Insurrection" blog (my thoughts afterward):

The second example is by The Providence Journal which found "pants on fire" ("The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim") for the following statement by Kenneth McKay, who is running for Chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party:

[McKay] Says Sheldon Whitehouse said on Senate floor: "Everybody in Rhode Island who disagrees with me about Obamacare is an Aryan, is a white supremacist."

The statement concerned Whitehouse's infamous speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he compared health care protests to Kristallnacht and those who opposed Obama to racists:

Despite the wide-ranging attack by Whitehouse on those who opposed Obamacare, PolitiFact chose to engage in word games to get the rating it wanted, by focusing on McKay's words "everybody" and "in Rhode Island":

First, Whitehouse was excoriating Republican senators, not Rhode Islanders. In fact, he said nothing about Rhode Island in the entire speech.

Second, despite his strident language, nowhere in the speech did he come close to saying that everyone who disagreed with the health care plan is an Aryan or a white supremacist.

He accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in a campaign of obstruction and delay "affecting every single aspect of the Senate’s business.’

He said they engaged in a "campaign of falsehoods: about death panels, and cuts to Medicare benefits, and benefits for illegal aliens and bureaucrats to be parachuted in between you and your doctor."

And he accused the GOP senators of voting against funding for soldiers, as another tactic to stall the health care vote.

But in the paragraph McKay cites, it’s clear that Whitehouse was criticizing fringe groups who are "nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama" not just opponents of the president’s health care plan.

In suggesting that Whitehouse labeled all opponents of the health care plan Aryans and white supremacists, McKay seriously distorted the senator’s speech. His further suggestion that, by extension, Whitehouse was applying the label to Rhode Islanders who disagreed with the president, is even more of a distortion.

Pants on Fire.

Listen to the videos above. Whitehouse was not just attacking Senators. It may have been hyperbole for McKay to say "everyone" was attacked, but not much of a hyperbole. Additionally, while Whitehouse did not mention Rhode Islanders by name, he also did not excuse Rhode Islanders from his smear of health care protesters. Any of the ratings from half-true to mostly true to true would have been in order. For the ProJo to find "pants on fire" itself deserves a "pants on fire" rating.

PolitiFact, you have a problem.

I find Jacobson's critique less than persuasive. The ProJo may be guilty of examining McKay's statement a bit too literally. But for McKay to claim that Whitehouse labeled any Rhode Islander who didn't agree with him on health care reform a "white supremacist" is a pretty serious distortion.

Still, when I read the PolitiFact entry, I couldn't help but wonder: is parsing this sort of political theater, this sort of obvious hyperbole, the best use of PolitiFact's time?

Perhaps more people took McKay's statement seriously than I imagine. But I would hope not.

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