PoltiFact Debunks Cantor For Claiming That The Deficit Is Growing While Showing The Limitations of Fact Checking Sites

The news media has generally done a mediocre job of correcting misinformation. Coverage of politics typically centers on the horse race, and statements from competing candidates are quoted with the view that they are being objective by quoting both sides. Fact Check sites are often helpful in sorting through the claims of politicians, but they also do a mixed job.

Eric Cantor repeated the frequent claim from Republicans that the deficit is going up when in reality the deficit has fallen under Obama. PoltiFact started out with a correction, stating:

There’s one problem: The federal deficit isn’t “growing.” At least not now.

And later in their article:

If CBO is on target, then by 2015, the deficit will be roughly a quarter of what it was in 2009.

In other words, Cantor is wrong about what has been happening to the deficit, and what is projected to happen in the near future.

From there the article states that the deficit is projected to grow after 2015. Based upon this, they came up with a strange conclusion:

Cantor said that the federal deficit is “growing.” Annual federal deficits are not growing right now, and they are not projected to grow through 2015, a point at which the deficit will have shrunk by three-quarters since 2009. By this standard, Cantor is wrong. However, unless policies are changed, deficits are projected to grow again in 2016 and beyond, according to the CBO. On balance, we rate his claim Half True.

Half true? If the deficit is now falling, then Cantor’s statement was wrong.

Steve Benen and Paul Krugman wrote more on this. Krugman is frustrated by the same problem I have seen from Factcheckers. They want to appear nonpartisan and find untrue statements from both sides. In recent years the amount of false information coming from Republicans far exceeds the amount coming from Democrats as the Republicans are spreading a number of false narratives as part of their overall political strategy. As a result, factcheckers sometimes find a rare exception to a generality said by a Democrat and rule it to be false based upon an exception, or find other ways to add alleged falsehoods from Democrats to the long list they uncover from Republicans. In this case, a factchecker  helped tilt matters by taking a clearly false statement from a Republican and calling it Half True. Krugman wrote:

It is, of course, the same old problem: news organizations in general, and PolitiFact in particular, are set up to deal with a world in which both parties generally respect reality, and in which dishonesty and delusion are roughly equally distributed between the parties. Faced with the highly asymmetric reality, they choke — treating mild Democratic exaggerations as if they were equivalent to outright falsehoods on the other side, treating wild misrepresentations on the GOP side as if they were slight misstatements.

This should be simple: PolitiFact should just rule on the facts; it should seek to be party-blind, which isn’t the same as being “nonpartisan”, with its connotation of “balance”. But apparently it can’t do it.

Beyond this attempt to balance out the number of false statements from each party, there are a number of other problems seen in some factchecking articles. They are essentially the work of a journalist who brings their own biases. In this case, the journalist might be concerned about the risk of growing deficits after 2015 and this affected his opinion in this particular article. Journalists are not experts in every field, and a factchecker may also lack the background to fully understand an issue. I’ve found this to be a problem in some factchecking articles on health care reform (with the factcheckers generally debunking the false claims from Republicans about the Affordable Care Act).

It is helpful when the media presents facts to analyze the statements from politicians. That does not mean that a single factchecking article has the final say. In complex issues, multiple sources should be reviewed. Journalists should concentrate on providing the facts as opposed to coming up with rulings such as true, false, or half-true or using gimmicks such as the Truth-o-Meter.

Now, contradicting what I suggested above, PoltiFact gets a False on the Truth-0-Meter for going beyond evaluation of the statement being evaluated, probably injecting the opinion of the author into the analysis, and calling a clearly  false statement half-true.