Hinckley’s at Least Half Correct
Yesterday, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru suggested that PolitiFact isn’t dealing in facts versus falsehoods so much as making political statements in a way that’s packaged to appear objective:
One of the worst features of contemporary politics is the tendency — found on the right, on the left and in between — to label our opponents liars, often without a shred of evidence that the person we’re attacking is saying something he knows to be false. PolitiFact makes that problem worse, not better, by giving a supposedly authoritative imprimatur to such loose accusations.
On the same day, PolitiFact Rhode Island provided a fine example by tagging Republican Senatorial candidate Barry Hinckley with a “False” for his statement that the U.S. tax code is 80,000 pages long:
The Hinckley spokeswoman directed us to a colorful chart by CCH that shows how the number of pages in one of its publications, “CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter,” has increased over the years. Its 2011 edition has 72,536 pages.
But that publication isn’t just the tax code. “That includes the code, regs, annotations to court cases, revenue rulings, explanatory material, other things that come out of the IRS that are not regulations,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for the tax and accounting group at CCH. “But some politicians and media have picked that up and called it the code, which is not correct.”
So, not only is it entirely plausible that Hinckley picked up the misuse of the word “code” from an otherwise reliable source, but the only way PolitiFact can reasonably turn its Truth-o-Meter all the way to “False” is by narrowly cropping Hinckley’s statement. Expanding the analysis to include the entire statement should move the judgment at least to “Half True”:
When Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter Ian Donnis asked about the refusal of most Republicans to consider any tax increase, Hinckley said, “Our tax code is desperately broken. It’s 80,000 pages. So in my opinion, any effort to continue to tweak something that’s broken is a fool’s errand to begin with. So trying to raise more money through a busted tax code, I think, is the wrong way to go.”
The core point, here, is that tax law is irredeemably complex, and as an illustration, it’s reasonable to count the pages of a document that incorporates all of the regulations, explanations, and judicial rulings with which a taxpayer would have to be familiar in order to confident of filling out the paperwork correctly. The word “code” might not have been as accurate as “law,” but that is clearly Hinckley’s meaning.
By contrast, recall PolitiFact’s treatment of a statement from Terry Gorman about the law and in-state tuition. The actual code clearly falls in Gorman’s favor, but judicial rulings (not fully applicable to Rhode Island, by the way) muddy the waters, and the reporters gave Terry a “Mostly False.”
The bottom line is that, in order to reach an objective-seaming ranking of political statement, PolitiFact reporters have to apply their own perspective on what is relevant and what is truly key in a particular statement. Admitting bias upfront, rather than pretending that it doesn’t exist, would be preferable.