Plain Dealer dumps PolitiFact … and about time, too

PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter is clown makeup on a serious journalist. (Image from cleveland.com under fair-use standards)

PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter is clown makeup on a serious journalist. (Image from cleveland.com under fair-use standards)

The Plain Dealer and its stable-mate, the Northeast Ohio Media Group, are finally doing the right thing about PolitiFact. They’re quitting. It’s for the wrong reason, but I’ll count my blessings.

The operation’s Ted Diadiun reports:

I should note that although some editors shared my dismay over the Truth-O-Meter, that did not figure in the decision by The Plain Dealer and NEOMG to part company with PolitiFact. Nobody (including me) disputes the overall quality of the enterprise.

… So why leave? In short, the reorganization of the newsgathering operation last August resulted in a smaller news staff and an unwillingness to remain in a partnership that required several PolitiFact investigations per week.

So, correct decision to say goodbye to the increasingly awkward partnership. But it’s a decision that I think should have been made earlier, and for different reasons. Among them:

  • The PolitiFact deal put the full Plain Dealer reports on their own site, separate from cleveland.com, which hosts all the other content of The PD (and, now, of NEOMG). Since part of my job was to find ways to increase traffic to cleveland.com, this never sat well with me.
  • Instead of providing the full reports on cleveland.com, the site ran only teaser summaries that focused on the hopelessly flawed Truth-O-Meter ratings, with links to the full reports. As the guy in charge of monitoring the comments, I knew that most critics didn’t bother to click the link the read the detailed, footnoted report. Heck, our standing joke (not a joke) was that many commenters barely read to the end of the headline before they starting taking shots.
  • The Truth-O-Meter’s distinctions made no sense to readers (including me). As Diadiun wrote:

To show you how silly it could get, a couple of years ago there was a lot of internal hand-wringing over whether one of the ratings should be called “barely true” or “mostly false.” What’s the difference, you ask again? Good question.

  • Even if one could parse out the differences, the Truth-O-Meter mixed apples and oranges. Its ratings are a combination of both whether a statement is true and whether it was misleading. Where the balance between those two values was struck in picking a rating was crucial. And as far as I could tell, looking at PolitiFact ratings from the national site as well as local ones, the final choices were coin flips. Much-debated coin flips conducted by honest journalists trying to be fair — but coin flips, nonetheless.
  • Despite all those flaws, the Truth-O-Meter was the real star of PolitiFact, not the endlessly long, thoroughly research full reports. Diadiun, in an early column, noted:

Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, does not see the Truth-O-Meter as a gimmick. “It’s the heart of PolitiFact,” he said. “We are not putting our opinion in our work; we are doing solid, journalistic research, and then reaching a conclusion. That’s not the same as opinion.”

Diadiun disagreed; so do I. There were just too many variables and value judgments, and too much simplification, for the Truth-O-Meter not to end up a matter of opinion. And eliminating opinion from the equation was, I always assumed, what PolitiFact was supposed to be all about.

  • There was no consistency to what PolitiFact weighed in on.  The mix included ads, speeches and other material, from politicians, pundits and others. It looked at serious comments and fluff. The need to select from such a wide list of possibilities wiped out any legitimate way to compare the truthfulness of individuals — even though that doesn’t stop PolitiFact arms from doing just that.
  • PolitiFact zeroed in on single statements often plucked from much longer contexts. That added to the possibility of selection bias. It also was a built-in contradiction. PolitiFact reports are supposed to dig deep and provide all the background — yet a politician could be zinged for a single factual error inside a much longer, completely accurate speech.

In the end, PolitiFact is a pair of strange bedfellows. The reporters who do the work dig hard for information, and they show their work so readers can see for themselves where the facts lie. But that serious work plays second banana to a show-bizzy format that emphasizes meaningless distinctions and the hideous “pants-on-fire” rating. I made these arguments during my time at The PD, but I’m certainly not the only critic. The Plain Dealer/NEOMG decision to sever ties to PolitiFact didn’t have anything to do with those criticisms, it would seem, but I still applaud my former colleagues for it.

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