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Politifact Backtracks After Fact Check Wreck

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In the continuing annals of Politifact oddness, it seems that during the initial truth-squadding of last night's State Of The Union address, the fact-checking organization took issue with a section of the speech that, frankly, would have been otherwise forgettable. The section dealt specifically with job growth during the Obama administration. The salient point from Politifact's original ruling read as follows:

In his remarks, Obama described the damage to the economy, including losing millions of jobs "before our policies were in full effect." Then he describe [sic!] the subsequent job increases, essentially taking credit for the job growth. But labor economists tell us that no mayor or governor or president deserves all the claim or all the credit for changes in employment.

[...]

Obama is correct on both counts when using private-sector job numbers. But he went too far when he implicitly credited his administration policies.

Matt Yglesias' response to this -- which was the first response I happened to encounter today, though there have been others -- raises the obvious objection, (along with a larger and more useful point Politifact missed):

Really? His exact words were "businesses have created more than 3 million jobs ... they created the most jobs since 2005." That doesn't sound like a president trying to say that he, personally, deserves credit for everything that's happened. Strangely they missed the real boat here, which is that the 3 million jobs created in 2011, through indeed the most since 2005, is actually a low number for an economy with a massive pool of idle labor that needs catch-up growth to regain full employment. What the president said was true, but just underscores the fact that the labor market has been ugly on both the downswing and the upswing.

Jared Bernstein also, understandably, got his dander up about this:

OMG ... this is beyond preposterous.

Politifact -- the self-anointed fact checkers -- grade this statement from the president speech tonight as "half-true:"

"In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005."

This is not half true or two-thirds true. It is just true.

This brought Paul Krugman and Jonathan Bernstein into the fray, and all of the ref-working seems to have paid off -- somewhat! -- with an editor's note and grade correction on the original:

Our original Half True rating was based on an interpretation that Obama was crediting his policies for the jobs increase. But we've concluded that he was not making that linkage as strongly as we initially believed and have decided to change the ruling to Mostly True.

So, I am left to speculate how this sausage got made in the first place. Let's note that in the original post, Politifact took pains to track down the relevant data that underpinned the claim. For the bulk of the post, they seem authentically concerned with that data. And, on that score, we have this ruling: "Obama is correct on both counts when using private-sector job numbers." What Politifact seems to object to, literally, is that Obama included this statistic in the State Of The Union at all. That's where we get the second, more costly part of the ruling: "But he went too far when he implicitly credited his administration policies."

Here's where we fall in a strange hole. As critics of this post point out, Obama explicitly credited "businesses" for this job growth. But subjectively speaking, by including it in the State Of The Union, it was, indeed, implied that the Obama administration had something to do with it.

But so what? Not for the first time, I'll wonder: "Did Politifact only show up in Washington yesterday?" Because I can assure them that State Of The Union addresses are not known as a venue where a president undertakes a session of searing self-scrutiny. The entire point of these speeches is to frame the administrations' initiatives as success-breeding, in order to make the case for more initiatives, and -- of course -- make the case that the administration should be allowed to continue.

In this case, President Obama stacked up evidence to make a case for an improving economy and thus, his presidency. Not only is this not new to State of the Union addresses, it's not new to political argument in general. It seems to me that Politifact's downgrade is based in nothing more than an utterly banal truth about State Of The Union addresses. You can apply the same standard to all SOTU addresses, and just consider them all to be a little bit falser, if that standard is nothing more than "President X presented some explicitly true facts in order to imply his/her presidency has been a success." (As Yglesias points out, it's more useful in these instances to track down the facts that are omitted.)

Another possible explanation is simply that someone at Politifact was sitting at their computer last night, staring at a blank page, when they finally just shrugged and said, "Screw it, this is half-assed, but I've gotta post about something." Either way, what's been demonstrated in this instance is that Politifact can be criticized into adjusting their ruling. I'm not sure this is necessarily a good thing, frankly! But the bottom line is that this all could have been avoided had a smidge of circumspection been applied.

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