PolitiFact screws up...but don't bury it

PolitiFact Rhode Island, the Providence Journal's fact-checking wing, has a catchy tagline: "sorting out the truth in poltics." But the paper, it seems, had a little trouble getting at the truth in its most recent piece.

On Sunday, PolitiFact deemed "mostly false" a recent statement by Republican Congressional candidate Brendan Doherty.

Doherty claimed that a former campaign worker for Providence mayor-turned-Democratic Congressman David Cicilline won a $103,000 loan from the Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP), which Cicilline chaired, and failed to repay it.

In fact, PolitiFact reported, campaign worker Erasmo Ramirez sold another property that he'd put up as collateral for the loan and sent the proceeds - $96.016.74 - to the city. Not quite the $103,000, but close. Hence, Doherty's statement was "mostly false."

The Doherty campaign, as PolitiFact noted, based its accusation on a golocalprov story that ran August 30. And that story spelled out what actually happened: Ramirez sold the property, but he didn't ship the proceeds to the city. No, the eventual payout came from an insurance company.

It seems the title company handling Ramirez's sale had failed to discover the lien PEDP had on the property. And eventually, the title company's insurance policy covered the $96,016.74 owed the city agency.

Turns out the documents laying out the title company's role didn't appear in the file PolitiFact examined for its piece; a PEDP lawyer didn't consider them public record and withheld them. After further review - and confirmation from the agency's lawyer that the title company's insurance firm had issued the check - Politifact has reversed its initial ruling, deeming Doherty's statement "mostly true."

Mistakes were made, here. PolitiFact should have asked the city, the first time around, about the explanation offered up by golocal, even if there didn't appear to be any documents to support that explanation.

And the error is not without significance: the Providence Journal, paper of record, waded into a campaign that is particularly fraught with questions of truth. And Doherty's reputation as truthteller surely took a hit with the original piece.

But I don't suspect that the blow was crippling. And the error, while regrettable, was understandable. Moreover, the reporter on the story is one of the best in the state. I'll give him a pass; I've made mistakes, too.

And I won't bury PolitiFact over this.

I've been plenty critical of the Providence Journal in this space. The company's web site is backward. The paper doesn't offer up the kind of big-picture analysis it should. The front page is too often dull.

But PolitiFact Rhode Island, despite a questionable call here and there, has been a success. It's smart, useful, a little sassy. It is, in short, all that the Providence Journal fails to be elsewhere. And I'm glad for it.


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