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Accusing the Journal Sentinel’s continuing feature PolitiFact of persistent bias, leaders of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin say they will no longer respond to inquiries from the fact-checking operation’s reporters. “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re moving on,” is how the DPW’s communications director, Graeme Zielinski, summarizes the party’s position toward PolitiFact, which he made public on […]

Accusing the Journal Sentinel’s continuing feature PolitiFact of persistent bias, leaders of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin say they will no longer respond to inquiries from the fact-checking operation’s reporters.

“Thanks, but no thanks. We’re moving on,” is how the DPW’s communications director, Graeme Zielinski, summarizes the party’s position toward PolitiFact, which he made public on Monday.

The party leadership acted after a series of PolitiFact stories they considered unfair, as well as an overall assessment that in its judgments about what to cover as well as its assessments of truth and falsity, “it just seems consistently weighted to one side,” Zielinski says.

The party doesn’t intend to enforce a uniform stance against PolitiFact among Democratic candidates, and Zielinski says officials also didn’t plan any sort of big campaign to publicize the party’s decision to stop cooperating with the feature’s reporters. “We’re not going to make a big deal of it,” Zielinski says. “We just think there’s no utility in dealing with them anymore.”

In a statement today, the Journal Sentinel editor in charge of PolitiFact, Greg Borowski, stood by the impartiality of the feature.

“At PolitiFact Wisconsin, our mission is to serve our readers by examining political statements to determine their accuracy — but also to identify where those statements are inflated, misleading or simply wrong. We do this by turning to outside sources to provide context to the issue, as well as by clearly stating how we came to the conclusion we did and what sources and reasoning we used to get there,” Borowski said.

“Since we are holding political figures and parties accountable, it’s understandable they will not always agree with our conclusion. But anyone who examines the totality of our work will see we do not play favorites and we do not pull punches. We will continue to do items from anyone who is a part of the political debate in Wisconsin.”

Complaints about PolitiFact have dogged the feature – a national operation launched by the St. Petersburg Times that is franchised at individual papers around the country – virtually since its inception in Wisconsin a little less than a year ago.

Here the criticism has been most vocal among political activists on the left. Just this week, bloggers Jay Bullock and Bill Christofferson took issue with recent PolitiFact articles, one on Wisconsin’s new voter ID law and the other on coverage of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce ads promoting legislation that would clear the way for a new mine near Ashland. (See the voter ID article here, Bullock’s response here; the WMC mining story here and Christofferson’s reaction here.)

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By contrast, the national PolitiFact operation appears to get more criticism from conservatives. Perhaps the most prominent example arose after the national operation awarded its “Lie of the Year” prize to a GOP talking point that the 2010 health reform law was a “government takeover of health care.” The Wall Street Journal’s hard-right-wing editorial page promptly headlined its rebuttal, “PolitiFiction.”

Zielinski, who once worked for the Journal Sentinel, says the party isn’t cutting off the newspaper altogether.

“We will deal with the Journal Sentinel. We have to,” he says. “It’s the largest newspaper in the state. We have good relationships with many of their reporters.”

But PolitiFact, he says, “is an instrument that we don’t think profits us anything, because we believe we’ve worked in good faith with them and not seen fair results.”

Among the examples Zielinski cites:

·         PolitiFact labeled as “Pants on Fire” the statement by Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch – who is challenging Republican Sen. Alberta Darling in a recall election – that Paul Ryan’s plan to change Medicare to a voucher system with a fixed government contribution “would end health care for our seniors.”

PolitiFact considered the phrase “ending health care” as a wild rhetorical overreach. But Zielinski contends that Pasch’s characterization is fundamentally accurate: “An honest evaluation to Paul Ryan’s plan is that it ends Medicare as we know it,” he says.

·         PolitiFact labeled as “Pants on Fire” a Democratic Party assertion that windows at the state Capitol were bolted in response to protests in February, and said that party Chairman Mike Tate didn’t respond to PolitiFact inquiries.

Zielinski insists that Tate never received any inquiries from PolitiFact. Moreover, he adds, “they know that I am the communications director, and that standard practice is to contact me,” something he says never happened.

PolitiFact justified its rating on the grounds that the bolts were a routine restoration of previous security measures, not an aberrational response to the protests. “They did not investigate our premise,” Zielinski says – including “claims from our elected representatives that this was being done as a response. I saw nothing to indicate they delved into these claims, nor did anything to scrutinize the administration’s claim other than to repeat it… The process itself was as unfair as the ‘Pants on Fire’ rating.”

Zielinski says the coverage reflects a pattern of “pettifogging some of our political rhetoric and leaving these pretty big claims by the Walker administration untouched.” And he contends that specific suggestions from Democrats that PolitiFact pursue certain Republican claims and statements have been ignored. (Absent a list of everything PolitiFact has pursued and not yet written about, that’s probably pretty hard to prove.)

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The stand that the Democrats are taking is an arguably risky one. It’s one thing to talk to a reporter and conclude your viewpoint is ignored or distorted; it’s another, however, to deliberately forgo the opportunity to even be heard.

On the one hand, a casual examination of how party affiliation lines up with ratings from True to Pants-on-Fire makes doesn’t make an obvious case of bias for or against either side of the political spectrum. (You can see for yourself; if you disagree, feel free to comment below.)  Did you know, for instance, that 17 of Gov. Scott Walker’s 27 statements to be rated so far have been labeled as “Barely True,” “False,” or (in one instance) “Pants on Fire”? That seems difficult to square with a claim of consistent bias against Democrats.

As I’ve noted in the past, however, simply adding up how one side or the other is rated can lead to a sort of false equivalency that doesn’t assess fairness, well, fairly.

Even so, PolitiFact’s critics have a point, but it’s a bit more complicated than partisan bias. The larger problem remains in its simplistic rating system and especially the incendiary “Pants on Fire” category, which doesn’t appear to be consistently applied.

There also is another sort of bias – not so much ideological, but in favor of playing “gotcha” around what may be fine points of data that can ignore larger questions of how a story oran issue is framed. And sometimes the operation seems to forget early claims that it wasn’t going to try to vet predictions of the future.

Finally, there’s an air of smugness in the tone of many PolitiFact pieces that condescends not just to the objects of criticism but to readers. I have a hunch that tone alone accounts for some of the hostility toward the operation, from whatever corner.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Perhaps the single biggest improvement in PolitiFact would be if there was just a little less of it, with topics more carefully chosen. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any the Democrats’ no-comment policy has.

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Kudos, by the way, to the news folks at Channel 12, WISN-TV, who have won an Edward R. Murrow award for their June 24, 2010 newscast on the O’Donnell Park garage wall collapse.

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