Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why I hate PolitiFact, DA campaign edition

Grits has alluded before that I'm no fan of the PolitiFact reporting model or others who parse public statements - often in the most narrow, out-of-context fashion - to pass judgment whether it's "truth." Two analyses of campaign statements by Travis County DA candidates Rosemary Lehmberg and Charlie Baird demonstrate why. Both comments were labeled by PolitiFact "mostly false," but that bottom-line, two-word assessment fails to acknowledge the more important, underlying truths that place the discussions in context beyond the strained, myopic lens of the "Truth-O-Meter."

My main beef with PolitiFact, and I'm not the first to say so: The truth is usually more complex than a "Truth-O-Meter" can capture.

Take PolitiFact's analysis of DA Rosemary Lehmberg's statement that "I’ve created the first felony deferred prosecution program for nonviolent first-offenders, and it gives them a chance to stay out of the system with a clean record." Grits has joined criticisms that the program mostly benefits better off defendants, but to me saying her campaign statement was "mostly false" oversimplifies matters and fails to give Lehmberg adequate credit. Certainly she was the first DA among her peers in larger counties to do so. More to the point, she didn't know of the other two. In fact, neither did the state prosecutors association, with whom she doublechecked before making the claim publicly. That she'd fact-checked the claim deserves credit, and the fact that the other two programs weren't widely publicized (e.g., I can find no reference to them in past Grits posts) means she likely didn't base the Travis County program on them in any way, shape or form.

Rose's claim spawned research in response that broadened what we know about these programs, but it'd be wrong to say she made a "false" statement. Her office was on the front end of the curve and she implemented the Travis program of her own accord, not modeling it on the other programs mentioned. The important stuff about her statement, in other words, was "true" from her perspective and more importantly Travis County voters'. The Truth-O-Meter grants this obliquely by calling the statement "mostly" false, but the "mostly" conceals more truth than the "false" part of the assessment illuminates.

Similarly, PolitiFact labels "Mostly false" the statement by challenger Judge Charlie Baird who said that "We've had the same leadership in the Travis County DA's office for 30 years." The writer justifies this judgment because Lehmberg didn't ascend to a top leadership position in the DA's Office until 15 years before Ronnie Earle's departure, serving as his first assistant for the final 12 years.

Again, though, the "mostly" conceals more truth than the "false" part of the assessment reveals. PolitiFact does mention in passing the critical fact that Lehmberg "left private law practice to join the DA’s office in 1976. The entry continues: 'Rosemary began her career with the district attorney working with the Grand Jury and then as a trial attorney in the 167th District Court, presided over by Judge Tom Blackwell. She later became chief of that court and then the chief of the Trial Division. She has served as the chief of the Career Criminal, Major Crimes and Public Integrity Divisions.'"

Context is everything, and we may read between the lines that Lehmberg's political connections to Earle in the '70s likely helped land her in the DA's Office in the first place. After all, she quit her private practice in '76, before Earle took office in January 1977. It's not like she blindly answered a classified ad. So Lehmberg was one of the younger members of Earle's original group of attorneys brought on as he transitioned into the office, spent three decades with him, the last dozen as his first assistant, and ran for office as Earle's heir apparent, promising continuity and a continuation of the former DA's most politically popular initiatives. From voters' perspective, she represents the status quo, an acquiescence in the idea that the Travis DA's Office will be run more or less the same way it's been run for decades, perhaps ad infinitum. (If Lehmberg wins, she'll likely run unopposed thereafter in Dem primaries for the foreseeable future.)

The underlying truth behind Baird's statement is the main reason his campaign has gained traction despite the many naysayers, and indeed is the reason I favor Baird in the race, though I respect both candidates. Because he won't feel compelled to defend the office's legacy back to the '70s, my hope is that the reform-minded Baird will be more likely to try new things and less likely to perceive new ideas defensively or as a criticism of "how we've always done it."

My own election preference aside, though, these examples to me show the shortcomings of PolitiFact's reductionist, all or nothing approach. "Facts" are relatively easy to check. "Truth," which requires their interpretation, is often in the eye of the beholder.

Fact checking is a laudable endeavor, but it's not necessarily the same thing as "truth telling."


john said...

wow, very right on. what could be simpler?? We've got nearly infinite Hollywood-wanna-bes on TV giving minor snapshots and sound bites, and reading someone else's misinterpretation of "news"--as their owners censor it. We rarely get "the rest of the story," anymore, without seeking multiple sources including internet.
Sounds like PolitiFact is one of those comedy shows where they only make fun of people. It's easy to do, as you say, outside context.
Uh-oh, Captcha!! Why is yours so hard? how about this'n...

Anonymous said...

I believe that experience has shown us that your opinion and the truth don’t always match. I believe that Politifact does a very good job explaining how they come up with their “two-word assessment”. I also believe that they perform a much needed service for those who want some facts and don’t have time to completely research the statements that are thrown around during a political campaign.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:32, you may not like my opinion, but unlike you at least I'm not such a coward I won't attach my name to it. Since you clearly won't accept my view no matter what I say (which makes me wonder why you're here in the first place, except to troll), read about it in the Columbia Journalism Review, which developed similar arguments more fully.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits just because someone hits the anonymous button doesn't make them a coward, as you are so fond of saying. If you don't like anonymous responses then take the option off the page.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, but it makes you a coward if you choose anonymous then launch accusations at others, hiding behind anonymity like a child cowering beneath mommy's skirt.

I allow anonymous comments because some government employees can't comment about work without the protection of anonymity. It's not to shield cowardly punks from responsibility when they abuse the privilege of commenting here, and as you point out I've never been shy about calling out the difference.