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Politifact’s Journalistic Research: Buying Whatever Business Lobbies Are Selling

Politifact won the “Pompous Response to Criticism of the Year” award yesterday for their rebuttal to criticism about their awarding of the Lie of the Year to the correct claim by Democrats that Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity budget would end Medicare. Dave Weigel has a pretty thorough rundown, so I won’t bother. The short version is that Politifact chief Bill Adair once met a guy who read Newsmax and listened to Rush Limbaugh for news, so that inoculates them from criticism on every decision they make. Somehow the existence of an echo chamber allows Politifact to make things up.

The line that everyone singled out for mockery is this one:

The most over-the-top response (was it tongue-in-cheek?) was a rant from Jim Newell in Gawker under the headline “Why PolitiFact is bad for you.” He conveniently ignored the fact that our fact-checks are based on hours of journalistic research and portrayed them as the work of rogue bloggers with a gimmicky meter.

I guess by “journalistic” research, Adair means that they didn’t actually commit journalism, but something journalism-like, some facsimile of journalism. That is what it looked like to me, so maybe that was the most honest part of the rebuttal.

But Susan Gardner, herself a former traditional media journalist, dipped into the Politifact archives to show what they really mean by journalistic research:

Back in January, PolitiFact decided to check a business group’s claim that Wisconsin’s lawsuit rules make it one of the most anti-business states in the country:

The Wisconsin chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business portrayed mom-and-pop companies as easy prey when people sue over harm from defective products, negligent care, accidents and other injuries.

“Wisconsin has one of the most promiscuous tort systems in the country in which small businesses are easy targets for baseless lawsuits and civil penalties that are entirely disproportionate,” said Bill Smith, state director of the group, in a Jan. 4 news release in support of Walker’s proposals […]

Smith pointed to a 2010 Pacific Research Institute ranking of states that he said puts Wisconsin at 35th — or 16th-worst in the United States — for an anti-business lawsuit climate. The institute is a free-market think tank based in California.

He also pointed us to Andrew Cook, a lawyer working with the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a business coalition lobbying for tighter lawsuit controls.

It turns out that Bill Smith, the NFIB state director, also acts as President of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council. So Politifact took information from Bill Smith, who as proof for his claims pointed to a group run by Bill Smith. Now if that isn’t journalistic research, I don’t know what is.

It’s not that fact-checking in and of itself is a flawed notion that should be carried out by journalists in the midst of their stories rather than in some separate part of the paper, though that’s part of it. It’s that the people who self-importantly go around fact-checking appear to be bad at their jobs, and yet at the same time smug about them.

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David Dayen

David Dayen