Fact from fiction: PolitiFact draws ire for checking 'Glee'

Has the Great Fact Checking Explosion reached a new level of strangeness so soon into the election year?

Or to put it the way some did Tuesday: Has PolitFact jumped the shark?

These questions are cropping up thanks to an odd bit of checking published by the Pulitzer Prize-winning site, which averted its gaze from claims made by candidates, pundits and public officials and dedicated resources to check a claim in a recent episode of "Glee." (PolitiFact is operated by the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute.)

You know, "Glee." The FOX show with a cast of twentysomethings pretending to be in a high school glee club? A glee club that includes a football player?

Well, singer Ricky Martin did a recent guest spot on the show as a Spanish teacher. (Ooh, does that mean we can soon expect Adele to play an English teacher?!) At one point, he dared deliver a truthy line: “Do you know that the U.S. Census believes that by 2030 the majority of Americans will use Spanish as their first language?”

Well, PolitiFact wasn't about to let a throwaway claim on a fictional show pass without cracking the books. (Hat tip to Jim Romenesko for drawing my attention to the PolitiFact check.)

“We decided to take a short intermission from politics to test Glee’s claim about whether the Census Bureau believes the majority of Americans will speak Spanish as their first language by 2030," reads the fact check by Amy Sherman.

The result was a verdict of pants on fire -- and a bit of backlash.

In fairness to PolitiFact, their article was clearly meant to be playful. They also followed up with a tweet that told critics to chill out:

Let the record reflect this is by no means PolitiFact's first foray into joking, frivolous fact checking. (I mean aside from whatever you think of its controversial choice for 2011's Lie of the Year, or its recent ruling on a claim by Senator Marco Rubio.) It has for example checked several claims made by Jon Stewart, the self-proclaimed purveyor of fake news. And here's CNN fact checking a "Saturday Night Live" Obama skit using information from a fact check published by PolitiFact:

Like this recent attempt, that bit of tongue-in-cheek checking didn't go over so well when it was published and aired back in 2009. The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto said the humorous lies circulated about Sarah Palin and other Republicans didn't result in the same level of impassioned joke fact checking. He also wrote:

There's another way to look at it, though: If only we'd had CNN and PolitiFact back in the 1970s, we would have known that Gerald Ford wasn't really as clumsy as Chevy Chase's portrayal of him, that Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin weren't really two wild and crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, and that Jane Curtin is not an ignorant slut.

Okay, so maybe some folks do get the joke.

Setting aside the PolitiFact effort, my choice for most hilarious serious attempt at fact checking is a Baseball Prosepctus Prospectus article in which one author and two researchers(!) attempt to fact check claims made by major sports agent Scott Boras.

Fact checking a talent agent's claims?! Who's next for the checking, lawyers? Psychics? Politicians?

Oh, wait...

Update: It seems the tone of this post may have been a little unclear. I meant it to be a playful look at the fact that PolitiFact had a little fun by checking a claim on a fictional TV program. I also wanted to make the point that this is by no means new territory for the organization.

PolitFact’s Bill Adair posted a comment on this post telling me to lighten up:

Have a sense of humor, Craig! We've published nearly 5,000 Truth-O-Meter ratings on weighty issues such as Social Security (100 items) and health care (more than 600). Every now and then, we do a fun one. Lighten up!

I also heard from PolitiFact’s developer, Matt Waite, via Twitter. He helped further the point that PolitFact has long engaged in lighthearted checking. To go along with my examples of SNL and Jon Stewart, he offered a stream of links to other fact checks, all of which are amusing in their own way:

One notable link from him went to one of the first 10 fact checks published by PolitFact PolitiFact back in 2007. In this example, the organization checked a comment by then-Senator Joe Biden that President Bush was “braindead”:

There's no evidence Biden performed the necessary medical tests to make such a diagnosis. We would have accepted the results of a cerebral blood flow study or proof that Biden had examined Bush to see if he had an oculocephalic reflex.

Indeed, even people who disagree with the president about Iraq and assorted other issues will acknowledge that the president has spontaneous respiration and is responding to stimuli.

So let the record reflect that PolitiFact has always had a sense of humor.

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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