In 2009, the fact-checking organization PolitiFact, run by the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 2008 election. But I don’t think PolitiFact is likely to emerge from 2016 with its credibility intact.
A recent NBC News poll shows that a mere 11 percent of voters would describe Clinton as “honest and trustworthy.” Yet in a complete repudiation of public sentiment, PolitiFact’s rating for Hillary Clinton finds her statements are true or mostly true half the time, half-true 22 percent of the time and false or mostly false 26 percent of the time — but “pants-on-fire” false 2 percent of the time.
Donald Trump did not fare so well. PolitiFact rated 19 percent of his statements “pants-on-fire” false. Given Trump’s cavalier approach to facts, I assume he earned the bad rating. But I cannot say the same for Clinton and PolitiFact’s generous assessment of her veracity.
Clinton’s campaign has been plagued with the general impression that she has lied repeatedly about her decision to use a home-brew server for State Department emails — as well as her assertion that the decision was done, not to keep public information from public scrutiny but for the sake of “convenience.” Clinton said it was “allowed.” Not true. She said other secretaries of state did likewise, when no other secretary of state exclusively used a private server. Clinton said that she handed over all of her work-related emails to the State Department. Wrong, FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress: “Thousands” were not returned.
PolitiFact rated the “allowed” assertion “false” — not “pants on fire.” When Clinton said, “I have now put out all of my emails,” PolitiFact rated that “half true,” and did not revise the rating later. It was not until Clinton told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace that “Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people,” that PolitiFact gave Clinton a “pants-on-fire” rating on the subject.
PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan told me that her organization “purposefully didn’t rate statements that we couldn’t verify.” Once Comey came forward, “the factual record got much richer,” and PolitiFact acted accordingly. And: “Our main goal here with the rating is not to punish or reward politicians, but to tell our readers what we know and what we don’t know.”
PolitiFact never rated Clinton’s public statements in which she linked “an awful internet video” with the Benghazi terrorist attack. It wasn’t clear at the time if it was true or false, Holan explained.
In October 2012 on CNN, Clinton blamed the “fog of war” for her video remarks. CNN’s Jake Tapper, however, determined for FactCheck.org that “Hillary Clinton contributed to that false impression even though the State Department and Hillary Clinton seemed to know from the beginning that this was a terrorist attack.”
This month, Bill Clinton went after Comey. The Washington Post fact-checker gave him three “Pinocchios” for “a pathetic and misleading attempt to normalize Hillary Clinton’s use of her personal email account and play down the fact that she was the only secretary of state to use a private server. The decision to use a private server is the root of all of the political difficulties concerning her email practices.” PolitiFact didn’t chime in on Bubba’s attack on Comey.
I have sympathy for PolitiFact’s efforts to rule down the middle. But when its decisions lead to such glowing numbers for a candidate who can’t seem to tell the truth, it has to rethink how it operates. Because when I look at Clinton’s high truthiness score, I can’t help but wonder if the verdict is — forgive me — rigged.
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