PolitiFact walks back second ruling in a month, this time on Rubio claim


PolitiFact has revised its piece from Feb. 14, which found U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's contention that "the majority of Americans are conservatives" to be "Mostly True." It's now "Half True."

It's the second time in about a month that PolitiFact, a project of Poynter's Tampa Bay Times and a 2009 Pulitzer winner, has revised a ruling after an outcry. In January, the fact-checking site gave President Obama a "Half True" for his claim on jobs growth, then upgraded it to "Mostly True" after "hearing lots of feedback from readers."

In an editor's note on the revised Rubio post, PolitiFact says it heard from lots of readers steamed by the original ruling, which hinged on reasoning I've read four times this morning and still don't quite get: "Rubio said that the majority of Americans are conservative. A respected ongoing poll from Gallup shows that conservatives are the largest ideological group, but they don’t cross the 50 percent threshold. So we rate his statement Mostly True."

The editor's note says that "the debate centered on whether to judge Rubio on his literal statement or the underlying point. We try to balance that question in many of our rulings."

In the new post, PolitiFact adds a little more chiaroscuro to its ruling:

When pollsters offer voters the option to identify themselves as moderates, conservatives never account for more than a plurality. Take away the "moderate" option, as in a Politico-George Washington University poll, PolitiFact says, and many more Americans identify themselves as conservatives.

The original decision, which didn't mention the Politico-GWU poll, turned PolitiFact into a punching bag on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show and many liberal blogs. In a forensic piece on the larger Maddow-PolitiFact contretemps, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple argued that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" ruling obscured the subtleties behind its argument: "Viewers and the rest of us appreciate the end product, nothing more. On this front, PolitiFact erred most egregiously on the Marco Rubio contention."

In Politico, Dylan Byers has argued that PolitiFact should drop the "Truth-o-Meter," saying it engenders tension between simple rulings and nuanced arguments. PolitiFact head honcho Bill Adair told Byers the meter rulings are "a key part of PolitiFact's work."

Adair tells me by email that the site doesn't track how many times it's revised rulings, but he estimates that it's happened about 10 times for the national site and perhaps 10 to 15 for the state sites.

Earlier: Krugman, liberals argue Politifact’s Lie of the Year is not a lie (Poynter) | Do fact-checking operations merely confirm liberal bias? (Poynter) | PolitiFact draws ire for checking ‘Glee’ (Poynter)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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