Fisking Newsy’s Flimsy Fact Check Fix

PolitiFact recently partnered with a television news channel, Newsy, to spread its fact-checking content.

Ordinarily the video version of a fact-check simplifies the fact check and further distorts any inaccuracies. But the Newsy version of a July 2, 2018 PolitiFact fact check actually does a more complete job of reporting.

That said, the fact check of a President Trump claim about the European Union’s car exports to the United States carries over most of the assumptions from the PolitiFact version, pointed out in a post I wrote for the PolitiFact Bias blog.

Mr. Trump, using chopped speech, said the European Union exports millions of cars, such as Mercedes and BMW, to the United States while refusing U.S. corn exports.

The fact checkers assumed without justification that Trump referred to an annual import rate in the multiple millions. They rated Trump’s statement “False.”

We tried to make that point to the Newsy reporter, James Packard:

To his credit, Packard responded:

We pointed out to Packard that Trump’s broader context concerned trade imbalances with a number of partners, and that it appeared to make the best sense of Trump’s remark to take Trump’s talk of cars and corn as an illustration of the long-running EU trade disparity and not an explanation for the 2017 trade deficit. Trump said that if we try to send a bushel of corn to the European Union it balks. Did that happen just in 2017?

Packard tweeted that Newsy would give the fact check another look:

What changed?  Just one short paragraph changed. This was the original:

While speaking at the site of a planned FoxConn facility in Wisconsin, President Donald Trump said the European Union sends Mercedes to the U.S. “by the millions. The BMWs — cars by the millions.”

It doesn’t.

And this is the new version:

While speaking at the site of a planned FoxConn facility in Wisconsin, President Donald Trump said the European Union sends Mercedes to the U.S. “by the millions. The BMWs — cars by the millions.”

Nope, it doesn’t. If the president is talking about last year’s imports, or any recent year, that claim is false.

Newsy added a line saying, in effect, that if its assumption about the president’s claim is correct then the president’s claim is false.

Instead of ensuring that it used the most reasonable interpretation of Trump’s statement, Newsy hedged its bets with an if/then clause. If Newsy’s unjustified interpretation of Trump’s words was correct, then what Trump said was false.

Just image the mischief fact checkers could create using that approach. “If he meant that it’s literally raining cats and dogs then his statement is false!”

It’s not necessarily wrong for a fact check to include an if/then clause. But in this case Newsy leaves out a critical element of the equation. If Trump was talking about the general numbers of cars from the European Union and not an annual rate then his statement is true, comparable to the USAToday story from earlier this year claiming that Americans buy AR-15s by the millions. In the past four years the EU has exported about 4 million cars to the United States. Four million is “millions.”

Using an if/then statement to paper over a biased interpretation cannot count a proper solution.

The correct solution is fair interpretation, achieved by consistent application of the principle of charitable interpretation.

Leave a reply here or on our Facebook page

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.