On Oct. 3, 2018 Zebra Fact Check contacted PolitiFact to point out the need for a correction to a PolitiFact Missouri fact check from Sept. 20, 2018. Our message explained the correction was necessary because PolitiFact Missouri had rated “Mostly False” a claim PolitiFact had stated as true in 2013.
PolitiFact gave Zebra Fact Check the brush-off.
PolitiFact offered no substantive rebuttal to our criticism. Instead, it repeated a part of its argument we had undermined as though we had failed to understand what we had criticized.
In our message to PolitiFact we wrote:
PolitiFact Missouri argues that gains in health care coverage somehow whittle down the truth value of Hawley’s claim down to a mere element.
But Hawley specified “health care plans” and not simply “health insurance.” Anyone familiar with the public history of the Affordable Care Act should have noticed the parallel with the promise President Obama made that PolitiFact has claimed won its 2013 “Lie of the Year.”
PolitiFact Managing Editor Katie Sanders replied:
We’re keeping the rating as it is. I’ll repeat the rationale for you here, from the Our ruling section:
But our experts and even the source provided by Hawley’s team contradicted this, clarifying that just because you received a cancellation notice doesn’t mean that you no longer have health insurance.
Hawley’s claim is misleading because it asserts that coverage was automatically lost. Other options and a sizable time period were given to those experiencing cancellations. Coverage was only lost if a new plan was not sought out by the individual before his or her previous plan was phased out.
Our language in the Lie of the Year award for Obama’s assurances does not negate the misleading claim from Hawley. We acknowledge in the rating that his statement does contain an element of truth, but he went too far.
Sanders’ reply simply ignores our criticism to repeat the reasoning we criticized. In fact, it parrots part of what we wrote (“PolitiFact Missouri argues that gains in health care coverage somehow whittle down the truth value of Hawley’s claim down to a mere element”) as though correcting our ignorance .
We call a brush-off no way to correct a flawed fact check.
The Ball in the International Fact-Checking Network’s Court
Is the International Fact-Checking Network an advocacy organization or an accountability organization?
It’s both. Yes, it’s both, though weighted strongly toward the former.
We think acting strongly in terms of accountability makes advocacy more effective. As a corollary to that, acting weakly in terms of accountability undermines advocacy. The public should rightly regard with suspicion the advocacy efforts of a cheerleader that does its judging without bothering to temporarily trade its pom-poms for a gavel.
We take the time to point out PolitiFact’s errors for two reasons.
First, we hope PolitiFact will appropriately fix its errors. Sometimes it does that, and when Zebra Fact Check points out the problem PolitiFact consistently resists the transparency of admitting to readers our role.
Second, we test the IFCN’s commitment to acting as a watchdog over the fact-checking organizations grouped under its banner. If the IFCN takes on a strong accountability role it lessens the need for an independent watchdog. If the IFCN proves weak in holding organizations to account, on the other hand, it magnifies the need for an independent watchdog.
When the IFCN started accepting critiques of fact checkers we decided to test its accountability system by sending it our critiques. PolitiFact serves as our focus because PolitiFact has always suffered from poor quality and because it shares the same non-for-profit umbrella as the International Fact-Checking Network, the Poynter Institute. There is no better test case for gauging the IFCN’s ability to serve as a neutral watchdog of fact-checking organizations.
This problem deserves better than a brush-off. As a clear matter of fact Republican Josh Hawley was referring to insurance plans and not to insurance coverage regardless of which plan does the covering.