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MPR Poligraph needs a fact check

by Eric Ferguson on April 9, 2015 · 3 comments

In the latest “This guy wants to be president“, I railed a bit at fact checkers and the twisting they use to get weird results. MPR’s Poligraph is doing the same thing. The Poligraph writer, Catharine Richert, used to work for Politifact, which is so frequently terrible at fact checking that I don’t link to it, even when I agree with their conclusion. I fear they taught her their methods.
 

In this case, Poligraph said a statement of Gov. Dayton’s was accurate, but judged it misleading for lacking some context. Generally, complaining about a lack of context is something done when the context would change the meaning, whereas in this case, the context leaves the statement still accurate — unless “misleading” and “leaving out detail” have come to mean the same thing.
 

“The Legislature and the Governor did that 15 years ago: they returned the expected surpluses to the taxpayers,” Dayton said. “Within two years, those surpluses disappeared. It’s taken us over a decade to recover from those mistakes.”
 
It’s time for a history lesson.


The Verdict
 
Dayton’s claim is meant to make the political argument that it’s a bad idea for the state to give all of the state’s budget surplus back to Minnesotans in the form of tax cuts.
 
He’s presenting one side of an ongoing divide between Democrats and Republicans about the wisdom of government spending.
 
But linking Ventura’s tax cuts – both permanent and one-time – to the state’s deficits glosses over some key issues.
 
First, a national recession played a big role in the state’s financial situation, a dynamic that was largely out of control of the governor and Legislature.
 
Second, economists and budget experts on both sides agree that one-time budget rebates are really different from ongoing tax cuts. They’re “safer” during times of budget surplus than permanent cuts or spending because they don’t obligate the state in the future.
 
Dayton’s claim earns a misleading for leaving out these key facts.

 
So try to understand this: Dayton was right that the tax cuts during the Ventura administration caused over a decade of state fiscal crises, but misleading because he didn’t explain why he was right. Apparently it wasn’t enough to state that the tax cuts cost revenue that resulted in fiscal crises. He apparently had to differentiate between the tax cuts and rebates, and explicitly mention the recession. He was somehow misleading because he didn’t explain that the reason tax cuts during a surplus are a bad idea is because there’s always another recession coming. We don’t know when it will happen, or what will cause it, or how bad it will be, but we do know it’s inevitable. We also know the Republians have learned nothing, are trying to repeat the mistake, and thus Dayton’s warning. Dayton was misleading because he didn’t expound upon economics and history? That actually makes sense to at least some fact checkers.
 
If Poligraph were fact checking a fire marshall, it would go like this:
 

“Don’t leave oily rags lying around,” the fire marshall said. “They’re combustible. Oily rags catching fire is why the building burned down, and rebuilding took most of a decade.”
 
The fire marshall left out important context, that something adjacent to the oily rags caught fire. Experts we talked to admitted that without a fire, the oily rags would probably not have burned. Also, the fire marshall didn’t mention that some rags were used just once and removed, and only some rags were left lying around.
 
The fire marshall’s claim earns a misleading for leaving out these key facts.”

Credit where it’s due, at least Poligraph doesn’t use some cutesy icon rating system. Though the graphic it does use it oddly appropriate:
 

poligraph misleading

 
Comments
 
From Dan Burns: Based on her photo, Catharine Richert is a young woman, early 30s if that, and it’s therefore statistically unlikely that she’s a g*d-damned Republican. But she could be. Whether she is or not, the thing is that MPR is corporate media – far better than most, but absolutely corporate nonetheless – and anyone who does a corporate media fact-check has to promote false equivalence, with the constant implication that the left has to twist things as much as the right in order to make a case.
 
Which is wrong; the facts indeed have a “liberal bias.” Most people really are better off in more progressive states, and/or when there’s a Democrat in the White House. Global climate change really is established fact. Bill O’Reilly really is a pathological liar. And so on and so forth.
 
Which means anyone with a job like Richert’s has a hard row to hoe. By promoting false equivalence (and Brett Neely, at MPR, does the same thing in the “Daily Digest”), one inevitably ends up looking like a fool, in the eyes of intelligent, knowledgeable people. But, they could find different jobs – pretty easily, in fact, in the liberal, economically thriving Minnesota metro.
 
From Eric Ferguson: I actually don’t suspect her of ideological bias, and I tried to steer away from mentioning her motives and focus on what she said. An indulgence in false equivalence would explain why fact checkers analyze the way they do, because the twisting seems to have a partisan effect. The fact of her having worked for Politifact gives me a good guess at where she learned to do fact checking this way. The shame of it is non-partisan fact checking could be very useful, but it’s wrecked by their analytical methods. I suggest any time they find themselves writing things like “I call the claim partly true because it would have been accurate had they said this thing they didn’t say”, it’s time for a rethink. In this particular case, maybe the problem was trying to fit an explanation of what Dayton was talking about into a fact checking format where there’s a need for a rating. Had Richert just explained what experts told her about the effects of the tax cuts Dayton was referring to, and stopped there, should would have been fine.
 
From Mac Hall: Did you read MPR’s Fact Check of the DCCC ad running in the U of M Daily about tuition and John Kline ?
 
The ad reads :
Tuition too expensive ?
Last week, John Kline voted to make it harder for you to pay for school.
 
MPR faults the use of “you” … but that is because the House did not define exactly who will be impacted.
The House bill calls for a Education funding to be cut by $103 billion over 10 years and includes a 10-year freeze to the maximum Pell Grant award. The House proposal suggests targeting Pell grants “to students who need the most assistance,” but does not give details on how to do that.
 
The DCCC ad does not specifically state Pell Grants … but MPR does.
Yes, “you” could be impacted … but “you” may not be because nobody knows what John Kline’s Education Committee will cut.
 
Let us remember that John Kline has long advocated cuts in Pell Grants … let also remember that when John Kline started college at Rice University, tuition was free.
 
Yet, what I found most upsetting was that MPR allowed the “misleading” statement that John Kline prevented student loan rates from doubling … without mentioning that his reform was to ensure that with a 2.05% handling fee, the US Treasury would make more than 1% on each loan it processed … and that rates have increased under the Kline reform NOT lowered as Kline’s spokesman said.
 

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