Scandal: Fact Checkers Fail at Accountability

complaint to the international fact-checking network about PolitiFact

Champion of Transparency, Michael Wagner

Without Michael Wagner we could not tell this part of the story about accountability at the IFCN. Only Wagner’s dedication to transparency made available the reasoning behind the IFCN’s kid gloves treatment of PolitiFact.

Though the following analysis of Wagner’s reasoning fails to flatter him, he remains one of the heroes of the story.

Why No Need to Alter the Assessment of PolitiFact?

When we asked Wagner what complaints he received from the IFCN, we got both more and less than we hoped.

On the one hand, Wagner’s assurance he received “a number of emails” told us little. After all, we had no sure way of knowing the IFCN received every complaint that was sent.

But Wagner sent us a copy of the message he sent the IFCN about the complaints he received.

“I told Baybars Orsek I would read all of the emails (which I did),” Wagner wrote, “and comment on the ones from 2019 since they were more directly relevant to the renewal application.”

Why were corrections failures from late 2018 not particularly relevant to an annual assessment due in early 2019?

Our most charitable view of Wagner’s reasoning marks it down as a method for saving time. The IFCN pays its outside assessors for their assessments. We doubt Wagner was offered a bonus for reviewing the complaints the IFCN failed to deliver on time. He likely had little incentive to spend time on it.

All the Eggs in One Basket?

Though Wagner said he would review “the ones from 2019,” he wrote about only one complaint, the one from Feb. 26, 2019.

Wagner erred consistently in his evaluation of the complaint.

Existing Costs vs. Added Costs

Wagner explained his reasoning:

First, one message, relating to the Feb. 19 story about Medicare For All, describes a message sent to the Politifact reporter asking, in part, about the origin of the $2 billion [sic] figure in the story. The $2 billion [sic] refers to a description of how Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes to pay for his Medicare for all proposal. The sentence in the story, “Sanders offered some possibilities” includes a hyperlink to a page on Sen. Sanders’ website. The second sentence in the linked piece from Sanders’ website provides the $2 billion [sic] figure. It is reasonable to assume a fact-checker, like the one who contacted the Politifact reporter, should’ve found that figure.

Wagner’s description, while not technically incorrect (other than substituting “billion” for “trillion”), offered a misleading impression.

Wagner hinted that the complainant could not find the cited number. But the complaint information we sent the IFCN clearly showed that we located the $2 trillion figure and that we questioned whether it qualified as a means Sanders offered of paying the cost of his Medicare For All (M4A) plan.

I used Twitter to ask the author, Jon Greenberg, about the origin of the supposed $2 trillion per year that would help pay down added costs of Medicare For All. No response resulted.

The linked tweet shows $2 trillion figure and questions PolitiFact’s description. The surrounding context shows that it could not qualify as a means of paying the added cost of M4A, for Sanders was simply noting the present total national cost (private and government) of medical care. Total (private and government) costs cannot be used as a figure paying for added federal government costs because total costs already include all costs. The result resembles double counting. It’s like trying to use the down payment on a new car to pay the monthly payments. The down payment is gone by the time the monthly payments come due. In like manner, added federal costs are what remains after paying the existing federal costs.

Sanders’ $2 trillion could work as a funding source for M4A cost estimates offered in the form of total costs. But that isn’t what PolitiFact did.

Thorpe’s Estimate of Added Costs

As we see next, Wagner incorrectly believed PolitiFact’s fact check used at least one such estimate of total costs (bold emphasis added):

The emailer also claimed it was a mistake in reasoning to apply the Sanders explanation for paying for his proposal to the numbers from one estimate of the costs of Sanders’ proposal (roughly $32 billion [sic]), as that estimate claimed the $32 billion [sic] was added cost to health care spending by the government. However, the other estimate Politifact cited, roughly $25 billion [sic], did not make such a claim.

The $25 trillion (not “billion”) estimate, from economist Kenneth Thorpe, was an estimate of added government costs, even though Thorpe did a poor job of communicating it. In our complaint to the IFCN, we correctly asserted a “person familiar with the Mercatus and Thorpe studies should know that the respective predictions represent estimates of added costs, that is, expenses added to what the federal government could expect to pay for medical services.”

FactCheck.org and the nonpartisan think tank Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reached the same conclusion we did about the Thorpe estimate.

Using Falsehood to Correct the Truth

Wagner’s explanation continued:

Indeed, the Politifact article noted that, with respect to the cost of the Sanders proposal, “This is the great unknown.” Then, it notes two examples of competing claims. The article would have been more thorough to report that the $32 billion [sic] estimate was an estimate of added costs while the $25 [trillion] estimate was an estimate of total costs – but in that case the article should also have noted that the first estimate included costs not included in the second estimate (in my view, the 2nd estimate is better as it is more of an apples to apples analysis than the $32 billion estimate is).

Contrary to what Wagner wrote, PolitiFact would have been wrong to report the $25 trillion Thorpe estimate as an estimate of total costs. Including another explicitly false statement would not have improved PolitiFact’s fact check.

Wagner concluded:

The important points for the story to convey on this matter are 1) the uncertainty of the costs of the plan and 2) how Sanders said he would pay for it. The story does those two things.

So, I do not feel the need to change my overall recommendation.

Readers who shared Wagner’s understanding of PolitiFact’s fact check received a wildly inaccurate view of the differences in the Thorpe and Mercatus Center estimates. Both estimates referred to added federal government costs and they differed by a fairly modest $7 trillion. And at no point did Sanders suggest using the current cost to the government of medical care to pay for the government’s added costs under his M4A plan.

Wagner was wrong on both points he emphasized.

Wagner based his evaluation on just one of more than a half-dozen complaints he likely received and dropped the ball on that one evaluation.

Yet the IFCN accepted the reasoning Wagner offered. That’s a scandal.

Why did the IFCN accept Wagner’s reasoning, especially after we pointed out its problems?

And why did two other IFCN treatments of complaints turn out so strangely?

3 Comments

  1. Julian Ciaha

    No wonder the IFCN has done nothing regarding Zebra’s complaints about Politifact as the Poynter Institute that created the IFCN also just happens to own…Politifact! How is that for a serious conflict of interest?!

    Reply
  2. Julian Ciaha

    Micheal Wagner : ” PolitiFact is an excellent, transparent, industry-leading fact-checking site owned by Poynter”….Politifact is “transparent”?! I would like Wagner to show me the link anywhere online that has Politifact’s (or Poynter’s )annual reports so that the public can see an itemized List of Donors for each year….not holding my breath on that one!

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      While PolitiFact does not list individual donors (not even those giving $1,000 or more as FactCheck.org does), it is reasonably transparent about its funding.

      https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/feb/12/principles-truth-o-meter-politifacts-methodology-i/#Our%20funding

      PolitiFact also links to a version of a filing form for its parent organization, the Poynter Institute. I didn’t see much on that for relating directly to PolitiFact, umbrellaed as it is under the Poynter Institute.

      Wagner laid it on pretty thick overall, but transparency on funding is one area where he’s not far from the mark.

      Reply

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