THE BLOG
05/06/2016 12:28 pm ET Updated May 07, 2017

Politifact Is All Wrong About Clooney-Clinton Fundraiser

Recently, Politifact's fledgeling Punditfact re-rated George Clooney's claim that "The overwhelming amount of money that we're raising is not going to Hillary (Clinton) to run for president... It's going to the congressmen and senators to try to take back congress."

They changed their rating to "Half True". Before Politico's story that brought the Clinton-DNC joint fundraising scheme's campaign-finance-law-skirting money movements to light, it had been rated "Mostly True".

That story found that only 1% of the money raised was making it back to the state parties.

I suppose we could really use a logical approach to understanding the rating system. What parts of Clooney's statement is true?

Clearly not "overwhelming amount", since only 1% went to the states. That qualifier on the word "money" was the point of his statement, though; it isn't even correct if you change it from "overwhelming amount" to "most of"; or even "a lot of". It's only accurate if you change it to "a little bit". His whole statement only has persuasive power if the vast majority of the money is going to downballot races, and it's clear that that is not true.

Politifact hedges, and says that it'll benefit those people, too; but Clooney's statement was that it was "going to the congressmen and senators to try to take back Congress," not "it will benefit them by helping the party infrastructure." The money simply isn't "going to" congressmen and senators. Even worse, as the Politico piece goes on to relate, these fundraisers max out donations from some wealthy donors, so that the state organizations can't raise more money for themselves; in some cases, this effort prevents states from being able to help their own candidates.

Both halves of Clooney's statement are wrong on their major premises - "overwhelming amount" is wrong, and at best should merit a "mostly false" rating; and the money is not "going to" congressmen and senators at all, even if it is ultimately of some help to them, so that half is at best "mostly false", too. When you factor in fundraising limits, it may in some cases hurt those down-ballot candidates -- which Politifact does not even bother to address.

Is there some algebra by which two at best mostly false statements add up to a "half-true" statement?

Think of it another way; rather than look for truth in the pieces of Clooney's statement, the way Politifact does, let's just compare it to the reality the Politico piece reveals: the overwhelming amount of money being raised is going to the DNC coffers; and wherever it ends up later and however it might be used, right now a great deal of it is being spent to prop up Clinton's campaign. When you think of it that way, it's pretty clear that Clooney's statement is simply "False". Is it "Pants on Fire"? I don't know. But it absolutely does not reflect the facts; and Politifact should rate it accordingly.

There needs to be a new kind of "true/false" rating, that reflects the fact that the statement is, according to the spirit it was said, simply false, but contains enough of a germ of truth to be usable in the political arena as cover. Something that is just true enough that partisans - those who really don't want to face an uncomfortable reality - can hold onto it to assuage their conscience. All but False? True Enough for the Faithful? Expediently Truthy?

The reality is, even Clooney's ostensible goal - to support downballot races - is ill-served. Sanders does far better than Clinton against Trump; and that will do far, far more to help downballot candidates than any amount of questionable fundraisers.

Ironically, Politifact fact-checked how Sanders performs against Trump, too. But they did a little more than fact-check:

Sanders said that "almost every poll has shown that Sanders vs. Trump does a lot better than Clinton vs. Trump ... and, that's true nationally." On the numbers, Sanders is right. He runs stronger against Trump than Clinton in six of the seven national head-to-head polls since Jan. 1."

If you were just fact-checking, you would stop there, because his statement was about numbers; Sanders is right, that's it, full stop. Fact-check complete. Politifact goes on, though:

However, polling experts say such results should be taken with a grain of salt, since polls taken well before the start of the general-election contest have historically not been very accurate predictors of the November results. The statement is accurate but needs additional context, so we rate it Mostly True.

Apart from the disingenuousness of saying "yes it's true but we don't think that's what matters", everything in their "additional context" itself requires a fact-check. Politifact didn't bother to cite or quote their "polling experts", or say what they mean by "well before". Sanders does a lot better than Clinton against Trump right now, and that is relevant to November. Their justification is loaded with opinion and presumption, and is far from the simple checking of the numbers that it could and should be.

And that's the problem; like almost everyone else in the media and in Democratic politics, they contort themselves to support Clinton and marginalize Sanders. The truth is, Sanders' superior performance against Trump is a critical piece of the conversation we need to be having. Politifact monkeying with their rating is an egregious breach of trust, and failure of journalism.

Politifact's parent paper, the Tampa Bay Times, endorsed Clinton. Others have shown their unfairness toward Sanders. It's laborious to make each case, since their ratings system must involve some subjectivity, and you have to do a lot of work to fact check anything (hence the value in having a neutral fact-checker, like Politifact aspires to be, and most of the time is).

In these two instances it's pretty clear: a simple analysis of the facts shows that Clooney's statement is simply false, while Sanders' is simply true. Politifact gets a lot of things right, but here their ratings reflect a bias that is all wrong.