I think this is where PolitiFact overreaches. They aren’t checking — reasonably, couldn’t check — every single thing candidates say or even every significant fact they cite. So expressing truth-telling as a percentage doesn’t work. It’s not a random sample — it’s the collection of facts they’ve decided to check out, which is always going to skew negative. (Just like Snopes, which is far less politically charged, isn’t going to have a whole bunch of “Oh yes, that’s true.”)
PolitiFact Rhode Island gives this a “Pants on Fire,” a rating usually reserved for blatant, malicious falsehoods that fly in the face of evidence the speaker should or clearly does know.
The commenters on Facebook have calmly taken PolitiFact to task, saying this is nowhere near a “Pants on Fire.” It’s false, yes.
Here’s the bigger problem: The fact in question is from the History Channel (PolitiFact strangely leaves “channel” lowercase). Stewart was simply repeating it and citing them. The Daily Show could perhaps be faulted for not double-checking Congressional records, but most people would expect the History Channel’s research to be somewhat reliable. (Certainly more reliable than the typical cable talk show.)
But the headline, of course, isn’t the History Channel. It’s Jon Stewart. That’s sensationalism.
And PolitiFact’s agenda for making it about Stewart is rather transparent. Stewart is considered a left-wing voice — though, if you watch his show regularly, you’ll see that he’s fair, if not necessarily balanced. By taking a shot at a prominent “left-wing” voice, they appear to be balancing out all the “False” and “Pants on Fire” rulings they have to give from the GOP debates.
PolitiFact simply can’t operate that way. If one “side” is telling more falsehoods than the other, so be it. That’s not a value judgment on either party — this year, we have a lot of Republicans running for president and one Democrat who hasn’t really shifted into campaign mode, so you’re simply going to have more to evaluate on the Republican side. If we had eight Democrats running for president right now, PolitiFact would surely have some crazy crap to analyze from those debates.
Stewart, moreso than most actual journalists, realizes that you can’t get at the facts by taking one from Column A and one from Column B. And that’s why, if PolitiFact continues down this path, he’ll be a more reliable fact-checker than PolitiFact.