August 6, 2012

Politifact: Bad at Politics and Not So Good With Facts Either

Mitt Romney, as it has been widely reported, has not released his tax returns. Speculation as to why he is breaking a tradition his own father started, has almost become an Olympic sport unto itself. One of the more commonly floated theories is that Romney paid little to no taxes for the past decade.

On July 31st, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in an interview with the Huffington Post, claimed that a reliable, albeit anonymous, source had told him that Romney had indeed paid no taxes for the past 10 years.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Politifact, a site for which I have previously pointed out, has in the past demonstrated an unfortunate inability to distinguish between fact and opinion, took it upon themselves to label Harry Reid's claim Pants on Fire.

Basically Polifacts' reasoning for this label boils down to speculation on the part of tax experts who say that it would have been extremely difficult for Romney not to have paid taxes. Otherwise, this issue remains Reids' word against Romneys'.

So why is Politifact not giving Romney a Pants on Fire rating either? After all, Romney could very easily prove Reid wrong by, you know, doing what pretty much every Presidential candidate has done for decades and simply release his tax returns.

In short, if Romney could prove Reid is in fact a liar, why should Politifact take his side? It is after all easier to imagine reasons why anonymous source would want to remain anonymous (particularly if they do indeed work for Bain Capitol as Reid claims) then it is to imagine why a presidential hopeful would refuse to follow tradition and release his tax returns. For example, I do not think that it is out of the realm of speculation (cough) to assume that there is a substantial chance that Reids' source might get fired for making such sensitive information public.

Then there is the issue of Polifact describing Reids' anonymous source as "shadowy". Really Politifact? What is your evidence for that? Is it now common journalistic practice to label all anonymous sources as "shadowy"? Do know why the term "weasel word" was developed? Is there any possible reason to include such a label, outside of oh say, if one were deliberately attempting to create a partisan smear?

Which brings me to my next issue. Why even bother rating for Reids' claim in the first place? Does Politifact really think that most people do not know what the term "anonymous" means? This is not an issue in which the particulars are not well known to the public.

So what exactly makes a ruling so desperately necessary? If, as Politifact claims, their standards dictate they must hold Reid accountable, why are they not also holding Romney accountable? Why is speculation considered a deciding factor but not an anonymous source?

If Politifact really is all about helping people find the truth in American politics, why bother reporting on an issue in which the details are already well known? Their article and justifications bring no significantly new angle to the table. Speculation at this point is only just that, speculation. The pondering of experts is worth considering, but I fail to see how they constitute substantial evidence in this case.

The truth of the matter is that unless Reids' source decides to go public or Romney decides to release his tax returns, the actual facts are unknowable. Which makes Politifacts posturing about Reids' pants being on fire, all the more galling. By pretending this is an issue in which the truth can be determined, Politifact has instead created a lie of the highest order.

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