Journalistic bias is one thing, but journalistic arrogance is quite another.
When reporters claiming to be neutral political fact-checkers go beyond mere reporting to state with absolute certainty things they cannot possibly know, they run the risk of churning out political opinion masquerading as high-minded investigative journalism.
This is exactly what the reporters at the fact-checking operation PolitiFact.com sometimes do. A project of the St. Petersburg Times, the website's "Truth-O-Meter" purports to check and rate "the accuracy of statements by candidates, elected officials, political parties, interest groups, pundits, talk show hosts."
After PolitiFact writers research a statement, it then receives one of six ratings on a continuum of truthfulness: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and Pants on Fire.
It sounds very Woodward and Bernstein with some hip Internet-savvy irreverence thrown in, doesn't it?
That's what I thought before I looked into the matter.
It turns out that those who serve the Truth-O-Meter often have strange ideas about what constitutes truth.
Let's look at how PolitiFact handled Rep. Michele Bachmann's recent claim that the much investigated activist group ACORN was eligible for up to $8.5 billion in federal funding this year.
Like everything having to do with ACORN, it's very complicated.
Reporter Robert Farley sets the tone for the piece in his first paragraph, writing that "Bachmann's latest outrage focuses on an old nemesis: ACORN." As blogger Bryan White points out at Sublime Bloviations:
The first sentence is an attack on Bachmann. The statement implies that she is guilty of serial outrage, though PolitiFact has only previously rated two of her statements. And regardless of how many were rated, the opening statement is an editorial judgment with no place in an objective news story.
Farley conveniently offers a sinister motive to explain Bachmann's anti-ACORN activities. ACORN has a "complex corporate structure," but "[t]he ACORN that Republicans love to hate gets involved in political activity like voter registration."
Farley quotes from Bachmann's website which reposted an article by Kevin Mooney of the Washington Examiner:
At least $53 million in federal funds have gone to ACORN activists since 1994, and the controversial group could get up to $8.5 billion more tax dollars despite being under investigation for voter registration fraud in a dozen states.
Farley incorrectly identifies the statement as coming from a Bachmann press release and then systematically dissects the Minnesota Republican's claim, repeated on television, that ACORN is eligible for as much as $8.5 billion in federal funding.
Eventually he ends the tortuous suspense and declares the assertion "absurd" and "irresponsibly misleading on several levels" as the Truth-O-Meter officially pronounces the claim "False."
But is it?
Not at all. As Farley acknowledged, I am the original source for the $8.5 billion figure that was reported by the Washington Examiner. I covered the complexities of housing finance on Capitol Hill for nearly seven years as a reporter in the Washington bureau of the venerable Wall Street daily, the Bond Buyer. Here's how I came up with the amount.
The $800 billion-plus stimulus bill that President Obama signed into law Feb. 17 contains $2 billion in funds for housing redevelopment and $1 billion for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). Separately, the proposed $47.5 billion fiscal 2010 budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides $1 billion for an affordable housing trust fund and $4.5 billion in CDBG funds.
There is no legal impediment of which I am aware that would prevent ACORN taking in the whole $3 billion sum from the stimulus package, which has already been enacted. There is also no bar to ACORN taking in the entire $5.5 billion from the HUD budget, which is pending before Congress.
In other words, ACORN is indeed eligible for the whole $8.5 billion, as Bachmann said.
The congresswoman said much the same thing on the May 18 edition on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. Debating ACORN ally House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Bachmann, a former tax litigation attorney, chose her words carefully.
She said she was worried about the fact that ACORN and other political advocacy organizations would "have access potentially to $8.5 billion" in federal funds:
Well, what I am concerned about is the eligibility criteria of organizations who have access to government grants. ACORN has received approximately $53 million since the early 1990s. Now, between the stimulus and the budget that was passed by President Obama, they have access potentially to $8.5 billion.
She again stressed the issue of eligibility during the broadcast, saying "we are talking about potential of access to ACORN or other similarly situated groups of $8.5 billion in grants." Bachmann never said ACORN alone was going to receive $8.5 billion, but Farley then proceeds as if she had, writing a news article that depicts something quite different from what actually transpired.
Farley states correctly that CDBG is an old program created in the 1970s. "To the extent ACORN has been eligible for CDBG money for decades, it is available to ACORN now."
Misinterpreting the evidence before him, he opines that "ACORN isn't eligible for CDBG funding. At least not for the controversial voter registration efforts that Republican leaders claim are a willful effort to forward the group's liberal agenda."
"We checked, and there is no money in the stimulus package or the budget for voter registration programs," Farley writes. "So if ACORN Housing was to apply for and receive CDBG money, it would be for a very specific project. And legally, it could not be transferred to other ACORN affiliates to perform political activities like voter registration."
But ACORN has somehow managed to get its hands on CDBG funds, according to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). In a letter to President Bush Oct. 22, he wrote that his staff had determined that "ACORN has received more than $31 million in direct funding from the federal government since 1998, and has likely received substantially more indirectly through states and localities that receive federal block grants."
ACORN is notorious for its huge financial transfers from one affiliate in the network to another. "ACORN is constantly shifting funding," he quoted me saying. "The problem is that ACORN transfers vast sums of money around in its network all the time. We don't know whether the money would be spent on voter registration or other activities."
And of course, even though neither Bachmann nor I actually said ACORN Housing was necessarily going to be the protagonist in this publicly funded drama, Farley keeps pounding away. He accepts at face value a dubious statement by ACORN executive director Steven Kest that ACORN won't apply for or receive a large chunk of the federal money in the stimulus package or HUD budget.
Farley cites an Employment Policies Institute report that states that ACORN Housing "has paid more than $5 million in fees or grants to other ACORN entities." He notes that the report does not claim "that federal tax dollars were shifted into ACORN voter registration efforts."
For the record, after Farley interviewed me I followed up with more research. Some hours later I emailed him a list of suspicious transactions that ACORN Housing disclosed in its tax returns from 1997 through 2006. For that period alone, I identified more than $4 million in unusual transfers to other ACORN affiliates. The largest individual transaction was a $947,609 grant in Tax Year 2004 to the American Institute for Social Justice, an ACORN affiliate.
The institute has taken in money for voter drives from foundations such as the Wallace Global Fund. According to its own website, the institute trains community organizers "to build and mobilize a constituency for change needed to transform poor communities"
And ACORN Housing discloses in the aforementioned tax returns that it received more than $18 million in federal money from 1997 through 2006.
Given the constant, well-documented shifting of funds within the nebulous ACORN network, how can Farley say with a straight face after his superficial examination of the facts that he knows for certain that federal tax dollars were not shifted into the ACORN network's voter registration efforts?
No one involved in the ACORN mess seems able to explain why ACORN Housing and other ACORN affiliates that are not supposed to be involved in elections routinely send money to ACORN affiliates such as the institute whose sole purpose is to organize and participate in the electoral process.
This is not to say that I don't understand Farley's desire to show his readers that in all likelihood ACORN won't get $8.5 billion from Uncle Sam this year. That's legitimate journalism. But instead of making that straightforward point, he chose instead to attack Congresswoman Bachmann, a favorite target of the left, and to try to depict her as a shameless liar.
A more honest ruling by PolitiFact might have taken this form: "True, ACORN is eligible for $8.5 billion in federal funding but based on the evidence we don't think ACORN will get anything close to that amount from the federal government this year."
But that's not what Farley wrote.
Should anyone really be surprised that PolitiFact, part of the St. Petersburg Times, would have a liberal bias?
On Oct. 24, PolitiFact gave then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's statement that Obama would "experiment with socialism" a "Pants on Fire" ruling.
An editorial in Wednesday's print edition of the newspaper hails President Obama's selection of undistinguished radical jurist Sonia Sotomayor to fill the Supreme Court slot of retiring Justice David Souter. As if reading from an administration press release, the newspaper gushes that Sotomayor is someone with a "powerful intellect who demonstrates compassion and a common touch."
On May 22 an editorial lauded the president for a recent speech in which he "laid out a cogent framework to return to the rule of law in the future treatment of terrorism suspects and close the prison." Former Vice President Dick Cheney, on the other hand, was described as spewing "vitriol" and "recklessly" arguing that Obama's policies were encouraging more terrorist attacks.
On May 20 an editorial served as environmentalist cheerleading for the president's tougher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, describing them as "a much-needed win for consumers, the environment and the struggling automotive industry."
On Sept. 14, an editorial attacked Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. "McCain's straight talk has become a toxic mix of lies and double-speak," it said.
A left-wing slant seems embedded in the paper's DNA.
Former St. Petersburg Times associate editor Martin Dyckman recalled what it was like being in the newsroom in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Dyckman, who retired as associate editor in 2006, reminisced that on that terrible day he "was standing at the teletype when the first flash came in that a suspected Marxist, Lee Harvey Oswald, was being held in connection with the shooting."
He recalled that the paper's publisher, Nelson Poynter, was dejected when Dyckman relayed the report. "'Oh, no,'" Dyckman quoted the publisher saying. "'I was hoping it would be a right-winger.'"