Slate helps spread PolitiFact’s false narrative

Is Donald Trump the least accurate politician PolitiFact has ever fact-checked?

PolitiFact has said so, even publishing an article devoted to the idea. But Zebra Fact Check showed the fact checkers don’t have the data to back the claim. Some other politicians have equal or perhaps better claims to the title, ignoring for the sake of argument that “Truth-O-Meter” ratings are substantially subjective.

Slate amplified PolitiFact’s millennial celebration of Trump fact checks

PolitiFact published a more recent article (Feb. 1, 2024) to renew its promotion of the Trump-is-the-least-accurate narrative, celebrating PolitiFact’s one-thousandth fact check of the GOP presidential front-runner. And Slate interviewed PolitiFact fact checker Louis Jacobson in a Feb. 2, 2024 article that pushed that same narrative (bold emphasis added):

On Thursday, PolitiFact published its one-thousandth fact check of a claim made by Donald Trump. The publication, which usually refrains from wading into political discussions or weighing in on a politician’s overall character, took the opportunity to release an analysis of those years of work. Its finding? Trump lies a lot.

American fact-checkers have never encountered a politician who shares Trump’s disregard for factual accuracy,” the authors wrote. “Ever since he descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, we have encountered a firehose of claims.”

As with the article we debunked, PolitiFact lacked evidence unequivocally supporting its claim. Jacobson made at least two false statements in support PolitiFact’s opinion about Trump’s “Truth-O-Meter” ranking. We sent Slate two correction requests pointing out the errors. And we sent a third correction request when Slate erred in altering its correction notation.

Fact Checker Falsehood No. 1

Slate quotes Jacobson (bold emphasis added):

(O)ne of the standout findings for us was that if you look at the median rating of Trump claims that we rated, the median is False. If we do rate a statement, it’ll be rated on a 6-point scale: our Truth-O-Meter, which includes True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Most politicians whom we rate frequently, from both parties, typically hover around Half True for the median. There are a few politicians—Ted Cruz is one; Ron Johnson is another; Newt Gingrich, the third—who have a median rating of Mostly False. But Trump is the only one that we’ve looked at who has a median of False.

On Feb. 5, 2024, Slated added a note to the Jacobson quotation noting that politicians other than Trump had median “Truth-O-Meter” ratings of “False.” Oddly, the note was placed before Jacobson’s claim that “Trump is the only one we’ve looked at who has a median rating of False.”

For what it’s worth, Zebra Fact Check does not credit Jacobson’s claim that PolitiFact is “pretty hesitant” to compare truth-telling records, nor his claim that PolitiFact is “very upfront” about its fact-checking not counting as a scientific process.

Fact Checker Falsehood No. 2

Slate quotes Jacobson (bold emphasis added):

And, you know, he’s had a Pants on Fire percentage of 18.4 percent. Which, not counting Facebook posts and stuff—back in the day, we had a category called “chain emails,” and those tend to get even worse ratings than the human politicians—was the highest of anybody we fact-check.

Quite a few targets of the “Truth-O-Meter” have higher percentages of “Pants on Fire” ratings than Trump’s, as we pointed out in the corresponding correction request. By Feb. 6, 2024, Slate had added a correction notice to its story, saying “This article originally misstated that Trump had the highest percentage of claims to earn a Pants on Fire rating of anybody fact-checked by PolitiFact.”

One Slate Spin-Cycle Later …

Slate’s correction didn’t last long. By Feb 8, the Feb 6, 2024 correction notice had been folded into the Feb 5 update and repackaged as a Feb 6, 2024 update:

Update, Feb. 6, 2024: This article has been updated to clarify that although Trump has a PolitiFact median rating of False, he is not the only politician with that rating. It has also been updated to clarify that among major politicians frequently fact-checked by PolitiFact, Trump has the highest percentage of Pants on Fire ratings.

The editor’s note on falsehood No. 2 was changed to read “Editor’s note: Politifact has fact-checked people with a higher percentage of Pants on Fire ratings than Trump, including Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson, among others, but Trump holds the highest percentage of Pants on Fire ratings among major politicians frequently fact-checked by PolitiFact.

Before now, we regarded Slate’s explanation as weasel-words, perhaps offered in explanation by Jacobson himself (Slate declined to honor our request for an explanation). “Major politicians” affords wiggle room. “Frequently fact-checked by PolitiFact” offers apparent wiggle room. What’s “frequent”?

PolitiFact Defines “Frequent”

Unfortunately for PolitiFact, Jacobson and Slate, however, PolitiFact itself offered guidance on the first point and clear guidance on the second, at least when it comes to ruling out Michele Bachmann on either count. That guidance came from PolitiFact’s story about what it has learned from 1,000 Trump fact checks. That’s the same story linked early on by Slate for its Jacobson interview.


Trump’s median rating of False is worse than a cross-section of frequently checked Democratic and Republican politicians. Politicians with median ratings of Half True include Obama, Biden and Hillary Clinton; three senators who ran for president, Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and two longtime congressional leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Bachmann was notable for her role as a Republican congressional representative, and she ran for president. That should count her as a major politician. As for “frequently fact-checked,” PolitiFact says Mitch McConnell (36 fact checks) and Nancy Pelosi (54 fact checks) both qualify. There’s also the question of how Michele Bachmann, with no “PolitiFact Minnesota,” received 62 fact checks if PolitiFact did not consider her a major politician.

Zebra Fact Check pressed those points with Slate in yet another correction request on March 17, 2024.

The Fix is In!

As of March 19, 2024, Slate has not corrected its twin boosts to PolitiFact’s misleading narrative.

Slate offers an ill-positioned corrective to Jacobson’s median rating claim. Slate explains “There are other politicians on Politifact with a median of False, including Ben Carson and Lauren Boebert,” but before Jacobson’s contradictory claim.

Trump’s supposedly worst-of-all-time mark of 18 percent “Pants on Fire” ratings falls short of Michele Bachmann’s 25 percent. Slate’s would-be update simply adds a new falsehood supporting PolitiFact’s false narrative.

Update March 31, 2024: Changed “Bachmann was a notable for her role” to “Bachmann was notable for her role,” eliminating the misplaced “a.”

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