The importance of interpretation: a PolitiFact example

PolitiFact published a brief guide to its fact check process recently on Aug. 20, 2014. It wasn’t bad at all.

Crowley & DeLayPolitiFact’s PunditFact published a fact check of former Texas congressman Tom DeLay on Aug. 31, 2014. It was pretty bad.

How does this happen? How does a solid outline for fact checking claims turn into amateurish and ridiculous fact checks? Using the DeLay example, we’ll suggest that interpretive failure sometimes serves as PolitiFact’s downfall.

PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan’s guide to better fact checking did not devote any space to interpretation. The closest it came was the admonition to contact the party receiving the fact check. The DeLay fact check offers no mention of any such attempt. We’ll assume that if PunditFact attempted to contact DeLay then no reply came.

Contacting the subject of a fact check offers a huge benefit: The speaker can tell the fact checker what was meant, giving the fact checker a great start toward an accurate interpretation. The fact checker might ignore that information, of course.

The DeLay case shows us how PolitiFact struggles with interpretation.

DeLay was forced from his position as Speaker of the House by an indictment from the same office that recently indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry. DeLay said the Perry indictment, like his own, was political. That led to this exchange (via PunditFact):

“The point is the prosecutor who brought the indictment is not a Democrat in any way anybody can see, and in fact has ties to Republicans,” Crowley said.

“That’s not true. Candy, that’s not true,” DeLay said. “He has ties to Obama. He has ties to the Democrats.”

“And he has ties to Republicans, yes?” Crowley asked.

“Well yeah, but that has nothing to do with this,” DeLay said. “What has to do with this is you take a law and you twist it so you can get the indictment. That is prosecutorial misconduct, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”

 

PunditFact decided DeLay was saying the prosecutor, San Antonio lawyer Michael McCrum, was a Democrat. That’s clear in PunditFact’s conclusion:

DeLay said it’s “not true” that McCrum isn’t a Democrat, saying”he has ties to Obama (and) he has ties to Democrats.”

 

Here, PunditFact fails to apply one of the basic rules of interpretation, which is to interpret less clear passages by what more clear passages say. DeLay plainly allows that McCrum has ties to both Republicans and Democrats. So why do we assume DeLay says McCrum is a Democrat?

It makes the best sense of DeLay’s response to see it one of two ways. DeLay may have challenged Crowley’s assertion that a lack of clear evidence of McCrum’s partisanship means the indictment isn’t political. Or DeLay may have denied Crowley’s claim that no evidence points to McCrum being a Democrat. Crowley did, after all, make specific mention of Republican ties while omitting any mention of corresponding ties to Democrats.

The context of the conversation argues against the interpretation PunditFact gave to DeLay’s words.

We think PunditFact’s faulty interpretation did much to color the results of the fact check. Though PolitiFact’s headline announced a check of DeLay’s claim of ties between McCrum and Democrats, it’s hard to reconcile PolitiFact’s confirmation of such ties with the “Mostly False” rating it gave DeLay. PunditFact affirms “weak ties” to Democrats.  Weak ties are ties. If DeLay implied that the weak ties mean McCrum is a Democrat then it’s fair to give him a poor rating. PunditFact never clearly offers that reasoning as a justification for its ruling, but that’s our best attempt to make sense of it.

So it all comes back to the interpretation. If DeLay isn’t saying the loose ties make McCrum a Democrat then it’s very hard to justify grading DeLay’s claim harshly. Plainly DeLay did not shy away, in context, from the fact of McCrum’s ties to Republicans. And he went on to say, in effect, it doesn’t matter whether McCrum is a Democrat or a Republican.

Why doesn’t PunditFact reach these same conclusions?

One could argue that fact checks from an admitted conservative at Zebra Fact Check simply offer favorable interpretations to Republicans owing to a conservative bias. We’d answer, of course, that such an explanation does a poor job of explaining why we consistently offer charitable interpretations regardless of political affiliation. No, PolitiFact fails to offer charitable interpretation because its staffers have not practiced the technique. The lack of practice creates an avenue for ideological bias to wend its way into PolitiFact’s fact checks.

Austin Afterword

Does it make any sense for DeLay to claim a political motive for the Perry indictment while also saying it doesn’t matter whether the prosecutor is a Republican or Democrat?

We think it’s plausible.

We looked into the evidence of McCrum’s ties to Democrats and Republicans. We found a common thread. Each of the three political figures who received political donations from McCrum were from Austin, Texas. McCrum is from Austin, Texas. McCrum isn’t broadly bipartisan on this evidence. He’s supportive of political figures from Austin, and it shouldn’t surprise if he knows each one personally. We’ll leave that investigation to somebody else.

Here’s the potential political tie-in: The public corruption unit that indicted Perry, and DeLay before that, is based in Austin. When Perry vetoed funding for the unit, it cut funds bound for Austin, supporting a legal power structure controlled through Austin. Republicans have in the past suggested moving the public corruption unit out of Austin.

If a journalist wants an obvious place to start in looking for a political motive behind the Perry indictment that’s one place to start.

A picture’s worth a thousand afterwords

Perry indictment screen capEarlier in our column we posted an image from the CNN program segment during which Crowley and DeLay conducted their conversation. Note the caption placed by CNN reads “Perry’s Political Problem a Political Plus?”

PunditFact used an image from a different segment of the show to go with its fact check. We’ve placed that image to the right. Note the different caption, “DeLay: Perry’s Indictment is ‘Political.'”

It’s sends a subtle message to place a bold-lettered claim near a graphic blaring the message “Mostly False.” That message seems consistent with the message sent by PunditFact’s fact check.

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