PolitiFact California walks back its ‘conversion therapy’ ruling

PolitiFact CaliforniaOn July 29, 2016, we fact checked PolitiFact California’s ruling finding it “True” that Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence once advocated diverting federal money from AIDS care efforts toward gay “conversion therapy.” On Dec. 2, 2016 PolitiFact California changed its ruling to “Half True.”

As with Snopes.com’s “Mixture” rating of the claim about Pence and conversion therapy, we regard PolitiFact California’s changed ruling as a half measure. The problem with the claim stems from the nearly total lack of supporting evidence, which remains the case in the new version of PolitiFact California’s fact check.

The sole evidence of Pence’s “Half True” support for diverting federal funds toward conversion therapy still comes from Pence’s  website for his 2000 campaign for the House of Representatives. Note PolitiFact California’s new presentation of that evidence:

During his first successful run for Congress in 2000, Pence wrote on his campaign website, under a section called Strengthening the American Family:

“Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Many, including Newsom and other LGBT advocates, have interpreted the last portion of Pence’s statement, about “assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” as evidence he supported conversion therapy.

In its first version of the fact check, PolitiFact California omitted all mention of the Ryan White Care Act. That context provides strong support for the argument that Pence was recommending some combination of abstinence, faithfulness to one sexual partner, and condom use. Pence specifically advocated those approaches to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. Monogamy represents a change in sexual behavior from promiscuity. Using condoms consistently represents a change in sexual behavior from not using condoms. Both changes help prevent the spread of AIDS. Does changing from gay to straight by itself do much to prevent the spread of HIV? Isn’t it a fact checker’s business to consider these types of facts?

PolitiFact California’s new version of its fact check has two short paragraphs making the argument that changing sexual behavior makes sense for people infected with HIV.

PolitiFact counterbalances that strong argument with three paragraphs on the other side of the issue.

First:

LGBT rights advocates say given Pence’s extensive record of opposing gays and lesbians, his words are indeed confirmation that he supported conversion therapy.

Supporting the use of federal funds for conversion therapy is a very specific policy position. It does not follow at all that strong opposition to LGBT rights carries any association with support for conversion therapy. The argument from this first paragraph has no substance.

Second:

“That is very specific language — some might call it a dog whistle — that has been used for decades to very thinly cloak deeply homophobic beliefs,” Rea Carey, executive director of the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force told the New York Times in late November. “Particularly the phrase ‘seeking to change their sexual behavior,’ to me, is code for conversion therapy.”

Does an unsupported allegation of coded language outweigh the context of the Ryan White Care Act and attempting to slow the spread of AIDS? We suspect “coded language” is often coded language for “I don’t have an argument other than my subjective impression.” As a basic rule of interpretation, clear clues in the immediate context of a statement outweigh murky evidences such as alleged code words.

Third:

“It’s the most likely reading” of Pence’s words, Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, an LGBT civil rights group, told PolitiFact California. “We view this in the context of the whole record. … You can’t think of someone who is more hostile to LGBT people and people with AIDS than Mike Pence.”

Again, the paragraph offers no substance. Does Zbur consider the context of the Ryan White Care Act? The paragraph gives no evidence that he does. For Zbur, Pence’s opposition to his cause appears to justify any damaging conclusion about Pence, even the absurd notion that Pence counts as the person most hostile toward LGBT people. That claim might have warranted its own fact check if PolitiFact California was not busy using it as evidence helping to justify its “Half True” conclusion.

If Pence seriously advocated government payments for conversion therapy treatment, it would make sense for him to express that idea plainly. Simply saying “change one’s sexual behavior” would allow others to easily twist his intent into support for programs designed to discourage promiscuity and encourage monogamous fidelity along with condom use.

PolitiFact’s “Half True” rating remains a sham. No good evidence supports PolitiFact California’s ruling.  Though at least it counts as a modest improvement on the earlier “True” rating.

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