We have an example from yesterday of a fact checker doing something a fact checker should not do.
PolitiFact, the popular fact checking site associated with the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, cherry-picked a definition and ruled on a politician’s statement based on that cherry picking.
PolitiFact’s mistake occurs as it checks a claim from Republican senate candidate Linda McMahon. McMahon’s campaign aired an ad charging incumbent opponent Chris Murphy with receiving $1 million in salary while voting to cut Medicare by $716 billion.
“He’s been in Congress six years, and he’s cumulatively been paid $1 million dollars,” said Todd Abrajano, communications director for the McMahon campaign. “It’s pretty clear and straightforward.”
But in our view, that’s a ridiculous way of calculating “salary,” which is defined as “a fixed regular payment, typically paid on a monthly or biweekly basis but often expressed as an annual sum.”
The tremendous distortion of this claim is that it adds up multiple years and uses a terminology that suggests it is for one year.
The tremendous error of the fact check is that fact checkers are not the gods of the dictionary. The definition PolitiFact cites shows that the McMahon ad is technically accurate. If the definition read “always expressed as an annual sum” then PolitiFact would have a leg to stand on. But it reads “often expressed as an annual sum,” leaving PolitiFact with no leg to stand on in ruling the claim “False.”
Consider an example: “His annual salary is $112,000.” By PolitiFact’s logic, that sentence is redundant. It repeats information (“annual”) that we should automatically understand from the term “salary.” But the sentence is not redundant because of the preceding part of the definition. If I say I make $4.2 million in salary over my lifetime, people understand that to mean my total income from salary if they understand the way the word is customarily used.
Is the McMahon ad misleading? Yes it is. But it’s also technically true, and the PolitiFact fact check is wrong to give it a grade that fails to recognize that fact. In effect, PolitiFact makes up its own definition of “salary” and grades McMahon based on its invented standard.
Avoiding the error
There’s no need for any journalist to make a mistake like this one. The error is easy to avoid by consistently applying the principle of charitable interpretation. That principle, in brief, calls for taking the entire range of definitions into account and applying the one that makes the best sense of a speaker’s words.