I like the fact-checking PolitiFact does, but I have real problems with their “Truth-O-Meter” ranking system. One problem with it is inconsistency.
Consider two recent statements that PolitiFact judged to be factually correct:
“Since President Obama took office, gas prices have gone up 67 percent.” — Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), March 11th, 2011
“Hitler didn’t want unions. Stalin didn’t want unions. Mubarak didn’t want independent unions. These autocrats in history don’t want independent unions.” — Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), March 3rd, 2011
Isakson’s statement is ranked “Half-True” on the grounds that — although “Isakson’s precise statement about gas prices is accurate” — Isakson was making the false (or at least questionable) implication “that Obama is to blame for rising gas prices”.
Meanwhile, PolitiFact notes that Brown’s implication — that the actions of Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) with respect to unions were on par with those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mubarak — was “distracting and ill-advised”. But PolitiFact ranks Brown’s statement as “True” because the assertion itself is “historically accurate”.
So one person makes an accurate statement with a questionable implication and it gets ranked “True”, while another person does the same thing and it gets ranked “Half True”. That’s not acceptable.
Inconsistency aside, I think it’s a mistake for PolitiFact to try to bundle different assertions — both explicit and implied — and cover them with one ranking. If they stopped doing that, they could get rid of the nebulous “Mostly True”, “Half True”, and “Barely True” rankings (and “Pants on Fire”), and simplify down to three: True, False, and Uncertain.
For instance, on the Brown quote, the claim that Hitler, Stalin, and Mubarak didn’t want independent unions is True. But Brown’s attempt to link this to the labor dispute in Wisconsin is debatable at best. I would rank this separate claim as Uncertain (if not just plain False).
And for the Isakson quote, the claim that gas prices have gone up 67% since Obama took office is True. But Isakson’s implication that Obama’s energy policies are the cause of the increase is debatable. So I would rank this separate claim as Uncertain, too.
PolitiFact does a good job of bringing relevant facts to light and making it easier for us to evaluate the assertions of politicians and pundits. But the Truth-O-Meter system that they use to rank those assertions fails to separate out and treat different assertions individually. And it’s inconsistently applied.