PolitiFact Ohio Editor Explains “Fact Checking” Racket to Fellow Journalists


PolitiFact Ohio editor Robert Higgs was the featured speaker at a November 29 Akron Press Club event cosponsored by The University of Akron Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and the League of Women Voters of the Akron Area. To applause and laughter, the head of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “fact checking” operation discussed the success of PolitiFact Ohio’s U.S. Senate campaign coverage.

PolitiFact Ohio markets itself as objective but clearly leans left, as extensive evidence presented by Media Trackers has proven. “Fact checks” of Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican, provide glaring examples of PolitiFact Ohio’s liberal bias.

In her opening remarks, Akron Press Club President M.L. Schultze said, “I’ve assured [Higgs] that he is among a crowd of true believers – that there’s a group here that generally believes that a free and active press makes a world of difference in a democracy. And I think we’ll find a little bit of information from PolitiFact went a long way in this past campaign.”

Sherrod Brown’s wife is a former Plain Dealer columnist, and the Plain Dealer’s editors are avid fans of Sen. Brown. Starting in late 2011, PolitiFact Ohio has cultivated a narrative that Josh Mandel is a ridiculous liar whose Senate campaign would have imploded but for outside spending.

This narrative was promoted by the Plain Dealer itself as well as The Columbus Dispatch, Akron Beacon Journal, NPR, BusinessWeek, and others.

“For those of you who watched the election unfold in Ohio, you know what an important role PolitiFact played,” said Bliss Institute professor David Cohen in his introduction of Higgs. “In fact, had you watched only the Senate race in Ohio, [inaudible] fact-checking had become a full-time profession.”

Higgs set the stage with background information which could easily have been borrowed from the long-running “Overturn Citizens United” petition drive on Sherrod Brown’s campaign website.

“You had amazing amounts of money spent in Ohio, in part because of the Citizens United decision. And nowhere was that more apparent than in the Senate race here,” Higgs said. “Knocking off a sitting senator is not an easy job, so you had lots of extra money coming into town to help bolster Josh Mandel’s candidacy.”

“And as part of that, there was this barrage of personal attacks – and actually they were from both sides. You had surrogates out there who were backing the Brown reelection who lobbed their grenades at Josh Mandel and you had Mandel and numerous super PACs firing right back at Sherrod Brown. And, because there was so much money in that, it helped – I think it helped keep the race close, too.”

Higgs went on to explain that PolitiFact Ohio is important because of today’s “soundbite” politics. He cited as an example one aspect of the national Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) debate which PolitiFact has covered with its trademark liberal bias.

“I’m sure at some point during the campaign you heard somebody refer to $700 billion being taken from Medicare,” Higgs said. “We have fact-checked it several times – by we I mean PolitiFact Ohio and our colleagues in the other states and at the national level. It was used by Congress, it was used by the Romney campaign or their supporters, it was used locally.”

National Review Online noted in August that over $700 billion will, in fact, be cut from Medicare because of PPACA. But in Higgs’s explanation of how different facts could be used to confirm or disprove the claim, he inadvertently exposed the central conceit of PolitiFact Ohio.

“It’s all rooted in the same data, all meant to drive the same message. The message being that because the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was enacted, it’s removing money out of Medicare.”

“You can build an argument around it that shows there’s some accuracy in the statement,” Higgs continued. “You can build an argument around the same statement saying $700 billion was used much more effectively to extend health care to a lot of people, too. It’s all a matter of selecting the facts that you want and building your argument around it.”

Assuming PPACA will “much more effectively” do anything – let alone “extend health care to a lot of people” – is pure progressive speculation, but that’s what passes for fact at PolitiFact Ohio.

As Media Trackers has detailed for months, PolitiFact Ohio follows no scientific process. Liberal Plain Dealer reporters “build an argument” by emphasizing or excluding evidence as it fits their own opinions – yet journalists across Ohio accept that PolitiFact Ohio rulings are objective because PolitiFact Ohio claims to be objective.

Discussing the origin of PolitiFact Ohio’s national parent, Higgs said that PolitiFact.com was founded in response to “soundbite” politics in general, and a speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention in particular.

“What drove it was the editor of PolitiFact.com listening to one of the speeches from the podium at the convention and saying, ‘I know that’s not right, I know that’s not right,’ and point after point that was a distortion or just a fabrication going by, but it’s getting dutifully reported in the press, it’s getting broadcast nationally, and out of that grew the desire to try and sort that out.”

“Where the awkwardness comes in is that it means the reporter is no longer taking down what each party says,” Higgs said. “They may also be in a position where they’re saying, ‘but what this person said is not accurate, it’s wrong.’ Doesn’t mean we’re calling them a liar, that’s one thing we’re very careful – we don’t use the word ‘lie’ in PolitiFact except for one time a year. But they may be misspeaking, they may be purposely excluding facts, they may be leaving stuff out.”

“And with that, PolitiFact was born,” Higgs said, essentially admitting that PolitiFact was created as a way for supposedly objective journalists to inject even more of their personal biases into political news.

After explaining that a panel of at least three editors determines every PolitiFact Ohio ruling, Higgs boasted, “We’ve never felt that we got it wrong and had to go back and correct it.”

Higgs then listed as achievements several of PolitiFact Ohio’s worst “Pants on Fire” hatchet jobs against Josh Mandel.

Questioned about which 2012 campaign he felt was most honest and which was most dishonest, Higgs replied, “We don’t say, ‘This party is more truthful than this party.'”

“On the website you can look and you can see a scorecard for all the statements we’ve done for one particular person, but you can’t really take that and compare it to another. In part because some people just get rated more than others.”

At the end of July, progressive PolitiFact Ohio “fact checker” Tom Feran wrote a story titled, “Campaign attacks give Josh Mandel Pants on Fire crown,” ridiculing the outrageous dishonesty of Mandel’s campaign as judged by Feran and other Plain Dealer reporters. Feran’s story was cited by columnists across the state, and was used in a Sherrod Brown campaign ad.

“There are people in all ends of the political spectrum who are very careful about what they say,” Higgs explained. “And both sides have people who just let stuff fly without looking to see how accurate it is. It really gets down to the individual involved.”

At the beginning of October, Media Trackers aggregated all PolitiFact Ohio rulings since the outlet’s launch in 2010 and found that rulings from the Democrats who staff PolitiFact Ohio strongly favor Democrats.

Higgs’s November 29 speech to the Akron Press Club was noted positively by the Akron Beacon Journal.

“Asked how he responds to people who claim PolitiFact is unfair, Higgs said PolitiFact gives its sources for each rating it does, so people can check the fact checker if they want,” Stephanie Warsmith wrote.

Media Trackers will continue to do just that.

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