Most of us heard this old cliché for the first time when we were children. The rest of us heard it at some point along the line. I’d venture a guess virtually all of us of voting age have heard it by now; it’s long been a bit of Americana. Well-known songs have been written about it:
The point is, the phrase “pants on fire” quite clearly is understood generally to refer to lying, even gross, flagrant lying. So until very recently, I had assumed that PolitiFact’s rating of the same name, “Pants on Fire,” was thusly named to indicate PolitiFact judged any claim they slapped with that label to be not merely inaccurate or false, but of having been uttered knowingly; in short: that the person making the claim was lying.
Boy, was I wrong.
Even if you’ve been watching nothing but Olympics coverage for the past week-plus, if you read this blog, you know that on July 31, Harry Reid gave an interview to the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Ryan Grim in which he said that a Bain investor had told him Mitt Romney had paid no taxes for ten years. I’ve already had my say on the advisability of the politics surrounding this claim by Reid, but needless to say, such a prominent Democratic leader saying such an inflammatory thing in the midst of a heated Presidential election caused quite a stir (and continues to do so). More than a week later, the story – if anything – appears to be gaining steam, rather than losing it.
This may, in fact, be exactly what Harry Reid and/or the Obama campaign wanted: for continued focus to remain on the startling fact that Mitt Romney, in sharp contrast to most other modern Presidential candidates, has refused to release more than two years of his tax returns; the two most recent years, when he knew he was running for President. Regardless of the strategy, though, this story has undoubtedly been, behind the Olympics and the recent abominable massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the biggest story around, for more than a week now.
You know what that means, readers! Yup, like a moth to a flame, it meant it wouldn’t be long until that unique specimen of the new breed of self-appointed, independent fact-checkers-for-the-people, PolitiFact, would be weighing in with their verdict on this issue. Well, the wait is over, folks: PolitiFact has rendered their verdict: Harry Reid’s statement earns the coveted “Pants on Fire!” And it is because of this that I learned I’d been making an incorrect assumption about the nature of the “Pants on Fire” designation.
How, I wondered, could Reid’s statement possibly have qualified for “Pants on Fire” status? Did Harry Reid lie? Well, what was his actual claim? It’s important to remember that Reid did not himself claim – as some of the more pugnacious and less careful right-wing outlets have asserted – that Romney had paid no taxes. Instead, Reid’s claim is that a Bain investor told him so. Now, is it possible that Reid is lying when he says a Bain investor told him that information? Of course it is! To date, Reid has refused to name his source for the information he says he received. Also – let’s face it – politicians, especially in election seasons, have been known to lie. Heck, if they didn’t, there’d hardly be a need for an organization like PolitiFact, would there?
If Harry Reid were willing to disclose the name of the person who he says gave him this information, PolitiFact’s job would be straightforward: call Reid’s source and verify that he or she really did tell Harry Reid that Romney paid no taxes for ten years.
Period. That’s it.
Even in such a case, it’s critical to realize that it would NOT be PolitiFact’s job – at least, not as far as Harry Reid’s claim is concerned – to try to determine whether the Bain investor’s claim about Romney was true, because that’s a separate claim. It’s completely possible for it to be true that a Bain investor told Harry Reid that Romney paid no taxes for ten years and ALSO for it to simultaneously be false that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for ten years, if the Bain investor who was Reid’s source was lying or mistaken. In such a case, even though the Bain investor’s claim would be false (or possibly even a lie), Harry Reid’s claim (that the investor told him this information) would still be 100% true.
In reality, however, since Reid continues to refuse to name his source – and it isn’t hard to think of perfectly legitimate reasons for Reid not to name the source, reporters do this all the time to protect sources – Reid’s claim is unverifiable*. So, why did PolitiFact even weigh in on Reid’s claim, let alone assign it their most-notorious “Pants on Fire” rating? WAS Harry Reid lying? There’s no way to know, I thought! Confused and annoyed, I finally got around to looking up PolitiFact’s “Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter” page, which describes how and why they make the calls the way they do. Although the section that describes the ratings themselves is quite brief, it was there I discovered I’d incorrectly been assuming “Pants on Fire” meant “lying.” PolitiFact’s definition of “False” is essentially what most dictionaries’ is: “The statement is not accurate.” But “Pants on Fire” is defined by PolitiFact as: “The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”
In other words, the only difference, for PolitiFact, between a false statement and a “Pants on Fire” statement is that the latter, in addition to being inaccurate, is also “ridiculous.” Not “said with malicious intent to deceive” or “knowingly false” (in other words: a lie), just “ridiculous.”
Now, it’s quite true, as any lawyer will tell you: proving someone is lying can be very difficult, because one must prove intent. You have to prove the person accused of lying KNEW their statement was false at the time they made it, and employed their false statement with intent to deceive. Although this can be difficult, it’s not impossible: in some cases, enough facts exist that it can be done. By contrast, however, proving that something is “ridiculous” is literally impossible, because what is “ridiculous” is a matter of personal interpretation, just like what is “tasty” or “loud” or “annoying” is a matter of personal interpretation.
That’s what’s so startling about PolitiFact’s definition of “Pants on Fire” – it’s not just that PolitiFact uses a different definition than what virtually everyone understands “pants on fire” to mean, it’s that the definition PolitiFact uses relies upon a subjective assessment. Stated more succinctly, PolitiFact’s assessment of “Pants on Fire” requires an opinion.
And that, folks, is why PolitiFact should be shunned for all serious fact-checking. They may continue to make the correct call in certain cases. But just as last year’s “Lie of the Year” fiasco showed, this most-recent foray on the part of PolitiFact from the safe and respectable waters of fact-checker into the much murkier territory of opinion-holder and shaper serves to show that PolitiFact has abandoned the role of neutral umpire: a “Pants on Fire” claim need be not just false, but deemed ridiculous in the opinion of the PolitiFact staff.
It may pain PolitiFact to hear this, and I would certainly agree that PolitiOpinion is both more unwieldy as a phrase and less compelling as a source for facts than “PolitiFact,” but (sadly) the former much more accurately describes what PolitiFact too often does: offer opinions on the political statements of the day. That makes them literally nothing more than glorified bloggers. If anything, it makes PolitiFact less honest and worthwhile than most political bloggers, because partisan bloggers don’t typically make an attempt to cloak themselves in the garb of neutrality as PolitiFact does. I’m not suggesting PolitiFact has particular political leanings, but it’s clear they moved some time ago from simply doing their best to determine the facts of a claim, into the realm of offering their opinion about the claim, as well.
They should stop pretending otherwise.
* I use the phrase “unverifiable” not just because it’s accurate, but because it matches additional specific language on PolitiFact’s Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter page:
In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:
• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable?
By PolitiFact’s own standards, then, they should never have attempted to fact-check this claim. Because, while it’s quite possible that (as a later portion of the same section states) “a typical person [might] hear or read the statement and wonder: is that true,” it’s also undeniable that Reid’s claim cannot be verified. Which, if PolitiFact were following their own guidelines, should render the claim, however juicy and tempting it might be for PolitiFact’s editors, off-limits.
I don’t mention this last bit merely to be didactic or score further points on PolitiFact. I mention it because I think any organization which was genuinely committed to pure fact-checking would have only three – at most, four – “findings” they could bestow on any claim: true (or accurate), false (or inaccurate) and unverifiable, for claims for which the facts are impossible to determine. The fourth potential finding could be “partly true” or “needs context.” This finding could be used in cases where the claim is technically true, but without additional context might convey an overall impression that is false.
It’s instructive to note that this is essentially the rating system utilized by one of the Internet’s oldest fact-checking outfits, snopes.com. Although Snopes has some political entries, they don’t confine themselves to the political realm (in fact, Snopes was started to debunk Internet urban legends, like the kidney-theft-ring). But since their inception, Snopes has stayed remarkably true to this spare, no-nonsense ratings system. By contrast, PolitiFact has a cumbersome at best system of six different ratings: true, mostly true, half-true, barely true, false and the infamous “Pants on Fire.”
It’s beyond my pay grade (and frankly, my interest level) to try to determine whether PolitiFact’s drift in mission from checking facts to weighing in with their own opinions is a result of their confused, bloated ratings system, or whether the ratings were specifically devised to allow PolitiFact editors to subtly inject their own opinions into the political dialogue under the guise of neutral fact-checking. What’s not subject to debate is how committed to pure fact-checking PolitiFact is. The evidence, both here and in previous cases, speaks for itself on that question.