As some commentators have noted, the proliferation of the mainstream media’s “fact checking” services hasn’t been quite the truth serum our political environment has called out for. The liberal media was particularly shocked when they found out that PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking blog, is less interested in finding the most untrue claims, and more interested in political relevance, when they named the Democrats’ claim that Paul Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare” the “lie of the year.” It isn’t true, but it isn’t the least accurate thing said by a politician in 2011. But it may be the most politically important distortion of 2011 (and maybe 2012) thus revealing PolitiFact’s true focus.
As networks like MSNBC and Fox News have discovered, news is boring, and opinion sells better. So has PolitiFact found: statistics and facts are boring; political commentary is entertaining.
Unsurprisingly, this urge to make a political point rarely tends right, as it did with the “lie of the year,” and tends to lean left. Here is a particularly ridiculous example: In last Monday’s debate, Mitt Romney claimed that “our navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.” PolitiFact rates this statement “pants on fire,” its lowest rating, despite the fact that it’s basically true.
As part of the research on this question, PolitiFact posed these questions to Tom Bruscino, an assistant professor of military studies at the U.S. Army School of Military Studies:
(1) Is this technically true, and if so, by what metrics?
(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?
The second question already seems “leading,” as Bruscino notes, but he answered both questions as best he could, explaining that in terms of active ships and aircraft, and the average age of our aircraft, Romney seems to be essentially correct. In its article, PolitiFact admits as much, though they note that in the late 2000s, the Navy actually dropped down to 278 ships (the number is now 285, hardly much of a difference).
Bruscino went on to note that today’s context seems to make the literal drop in size of our military more problematic, since the loss of a few crucial carriers or jets could seriously harm the U.S.’s power in a way it wouldn’t have when we had thousands of fighter aircraft. Further, today’s sophisticated ships and aircraft take years longer to replace than the simpler ones of old, and we don’t have the manufacturing capacity to ramp up production in wartime.
So PolitiFact accepts the facts of Romney’s statement, is informed that context may make it more, not less, accurate, and gives him a “pants on fire” rating, defined as “not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”
How did they reach this conclusion? They base it on two issues: according to experts, “it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military,” since, naturally, 285 warships from 2011 are better than 600 warships since 1945. Secondly, “Romney appears to be using the statistic as a critique of the current administration,” while, admittedly, dramatically reducing the number of active ships and aircraft takes years. But neither of those things, obviously, makes Romney’s statement utterly false, as PolitiFact claims. It is not even misleading, since Romney specifically stated he was talking about the size of our forces, and not the strength.
A commentator would be perfectly justified to point out that Romney’s statement, if taken as an assertion that Barack Obama has reduced the power of our navy and air force to levels comparable to the 1900s, isn’t accurate. But is his statistical citation “not accurate and making a ridiculous claim”? No, it’s almost completely accurate, and only implying a somewhat unfair claim.
Fact-checking services would do well to focus on correcting politicians when they make factually inaccurate statements, something Romney didn’t do. If they insist, however, on making political judgments, too, they should refrain from pretending a purposive political argument is the same as a “pants on fire” lie. PolitiFact, in this case as in others, does neither.