Political Animal


June 22, 2011 9:30 AM When PolitiFact falls short of its name

By Steve Benen

Over the weekend, Jon Stewart talked to Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” and made an important observation: “In polls,” Stewart said, in a surprisingly angry tone, “who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox. Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll.”

I defended the claim, pointing to data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and the Pew Research Center. PolitiFact checked the same claim and rated Stewart’s comment “false.” So, which is it? Did Stewart and I get it wrong or did PolitiFact?

My friend Chris Mooney argued the other day that Stewart’s original claim was correct and cited five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) separate public opinion studies in support of Stewart’s argument. Yesterday, Chris gave the PolitiFact piece a closer look and found the fact-checking site’s analysis was clearly mistaken.

What Stewart obviously meant — and what I mean — is that when it comes to politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky due to political biases, it is Fox viewers who are the most likely to believe incorrect things — to fall prey to misinformation. A quintessential example of such an issue is global warming, or whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or was collaborating with Al Qaeda. There are many, many others.

To rebut Stewart’s claim, Politfact relied upon irrelevant and off-point studies. Thus, the site cited a number of Pew surveys that examine basic political literacy and relate it to what kind of media citizens consume. E.g., questions like whether people know “who the vice president is, who the president of Russia is, whether the Chief Justice is conservative, which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and whether the U.S. has a trade deficit.”

Too few citizens know the answers to such basic questions — which is lamentable, but also irrelevant in the current context…. [T]he bulk of the studies cited by Politifact have nothing to do with whether Fox viewers believe the truth, or falsehoods, on politicized and contested issues.

Between us, Chris and I pointed to seven different pieces of independent research, all of which show Fox News viewers being the most misinformed news consumers. PolitiFact ignored five of the seven, tries to dismiss a sixth, and then points to other data with no meaningful relevance to the subject.

Independent fact-checking outlets can play an important part of the political discourse, but the process breaks down when the fact-checkers are themselves wrong. When an outlet puts “fact” in its name, the standards are especially high. In this case, PolitiFact fell far short.

Last night, Stewart apologized for his error. Jon, if you read this, you weren’t wrong. The fact-checkers were.

Update: Adam Serwer argued along the same lines, explaining this morning, “Politfact’s fact check evaluates a claim Stewart wasn’t actually trying to make.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • shrink2 on June 22, 2011 9:42 AM:

    Every poll is every poll.

  • DAY on June 22, 2011 9:42 AM:

    Hey, many, many FOX viewers know what day of the week it is, and can remember what they had for breakfast.

    And, do YOU know what today's Early Bird Special is at Applebees? They do. . .

  • c u n d gulag on June 22, 2011 9:42 AM:

    Well, it's easier to sell something called PolitiFact, than PolitiFiction, or PolitiFeelings, no matter what BS they choose to write.

    In media, just like in all other aspects, if the regulators are skewed, uninterested, bribed, or have a predetermined prejudice, truth isn't in the eye of the beholder. It's on the side of the one paying.

  • Patrick Star on June 22, 2011 9:43 AM:

    "both sides do it" strikes again. I'm assuming Stewart wasn't aware of Politifact's shaky track record, especially during the Wisconsin budget battle. I really wish Stewart wouldn't have apologized.

  • thundermonkey on June 22, 2011 9:43 AM:

    I hear Stewart's apology was rather insincere:


  • kissed off on June 22, 2011 9:46 AM:

    He doesn't want to be known as a fact bender, which is admirable. Also, his apology just gives his gaffe-or-not more inches.

  • Walker on June 22, 2011 9:49 AM:

    This is the second time Politifact has done this. The first was their declaration that Ryan's bill would not actually end Medicare (because it keeps the name).

    It is time to write this organization off.

  • Mr. Serf Man on June 22, 2011 9:54 AM:

    It appears that the masses were none too pleased about Politifact ignoring the fact that Faux Nooze is basically a propaganda outfit that doesn't Uniform it misinforms.


  • kevo on June 22, 2011 10:02 AM:

    The next fact checking outfit - PolitiTruth: We bring you the truthiness of today's political world!

    That's the slippery slope PolitiFact has begun with its irrelevant-data response to what common sense would verify to any astute political observer, or anyone who has a relative who gets a constant stream of FOXNEWS-addled information! To publish its latest drivel is to steep down a couple levels of that slippery slope!

    And to think, at first I believed PolitiFact would be a good thing to have in our nanosecond cyber world, but it has become credibly suspect with its recent findings on a few different matters! -Kevo

  • Mr. Serf Man on June 22, 2011 10:22 AM:

    KEVO you said it : PolitiFact - Fair and Balanced
    Should be their new motto
    Anyone who fails to notice Fox Derangement syndrome is ignoring the truth.
    I had a boss who is a MBA tell me during the election , that I had better watch Obama because he "pals around with terrorists"

    Only one place that kind of mis-information comes from.

    "Watch Fox News I asked "
    "Oh yes, I like them they are fair and balanced presenting both sides of the story."

  • majun on June 22, 2011 10:23 AM:

    "All of us are ignorant, just on different subjects." - Will Rogers.

    The problem is, Fox viewers are ignorant (and willfully so) on the issues that really matter. I would rather that a person not know who the Chief Justice is and what his political affiliation is, but be well versed on climate change and know that all of Bush's rationales for invading Iraq proved to be false, which is why pre-emptive warfare is always a bad idea.

    But I think that Politifact is playing a game here, where they have to salvage Fox's reputation because, without them in the game, the media might have to start reporting on real news (a very expensive proposition) instead of just telling us what other media outlets are saying. Anthony Weiner can't keep it up forever and there are long gaps between OJ type trials.

  • Diane Rodriguez on June 22, 2011 10:30 AM:

    I read the NYT this morning with the lede declaring that PolitiFact "shreds" John Stewarts claim - say what? The whole President Obama wsn't born here ad infinitum, death panels, Kenyan anti-colonialism garbage? Who knew that stuff wasn't taken as Gospel by Fox viewers. I appreciate the clarifications by some of the print media, including Steve.

  • Holmes on June 22, 2011 10:30 AM:

    Politfact and Kissler at WaPo engage in the same sort of false balance that most of the MSM does. Both went out of their way to carry water for Ryan, and Poitfact was calling the Republicans false claim that Obama raised discretionary spending by 80% "true" for months. Only after Krugman did a blog post pointing out the lie, did they change it.

  • Kiweagle on June 22, 2011 10:38 AM:

    I'm thrilled to see this issue addressed after I saw the embarrassing PolitiFact truth-o-meter judgment of "False" concerning Stewart's claims. Like my fellow commenters above, I too have noticed a rather disturbing tendency for statements by liberals to be interpreted literally, while those of conservatives are given the benefit of the doubt as to what they "may" have meant to say.

    To say that they are doing a disservice to the discourse is an understatement. Now you have dittoheads screaming that PolitiFact proves Fox News is one of the top sources of information in the media, when the facts prove the exact opposite is true.

  • kindness on June 22, 2011 11:03 AM:

    Yea, politifact sucks. They certainly are politially motivated and all too often they've shown a weakness for carrying the water on right wing lies.

    Now as far as those upthread who bemoan Jon running this skit & 'apologizing'.....do I really need to tell you to look up sarcasm in the dictionary? Or are you being sarcastic about Jon's sarcasm. O the humanity....now I'm as confused as a typical Fox viewer...

  • FRP on June 22, 2011 11:56 AM:

    It turns out that the Wagnerian Ring cycle includes a similar character to none other than the scary Attila the Hun in the thin disguise of Etzel . What was silly Richard W theenkin ?


    Attila has many variants in modern languages: Atli and Atle in Norse, Attila/Atilla/Etele in Hungarian (all the three name variants are used in Hungary; Attila is the most popular variant), Etzel in the German Nibelungenlied, or Attila, Atila or Atilla in modern Turkish.


    Our caution and scolding for minor drifts of , in the final analysis , the common complaints from the likes Jon Stewart is a distraction . Was he essentially correct , or was he distracting us from our common enemy , Attila/Etzel .

    Now why should we ask ourselves , centuries after the scourge of Europe and Rome in mass movements of populations from starvation , wars , overpopulation etc be given such a proud place as the myths and legend of the Rhine Gold by Teutonic tunes smithy Richard W , and why should we even care or notice ? Does history repeat itself , or just come in as a chorus ?
    Were the bogeyman from our ancient fathers , to the PolitiFact (in) corrective of mere stupid facts , to the glory of drumming todays bogeyman , wrong ? The ashes of the flames conjured in the Mideast , waging war against as worthy an enemy , and as endless a one , an adjective . The choice is do we sell a muddle along , patching up leaks wherever they spring up , or defend ourselves from annihilation with heart warming flags and bright shiny , paid , warriors .
    It isn't only a matter of believing your lying eyes or not . There is a drummer for every drumbeat , and the bogeyman common to the most consumers will be the hammering heard , not a yeoman or foreign lord such as a Jon Stewart .

  • Anonymous on June 22, 2011 12:26 PM:

    Just to add to the comments that you should check out Jon's "apology" before you condemn him for it. It's hilarious!!!

  • ohhenery on June 22, 2011 12:58 PM:

    So much of this is payback for Stewart not being the media's monkey. We'll get you, Jon Stewart, and your little dog too!

  • Doug N on June 22, 2011 1:56 PM:

    I saw Stewart's "apology" and it wasn't really any regret. He then went on to list many of the lies Politifact called on Fox News. It was perfect!

    Faux News exist only to serve up red meat to conservatives, truth be damned.

  • Schtick on June 22, 2011 3:07 PM:

    Politifiction is owned by rupert or his saudi friend or both?

  • neil b on November 22, 2011 7:49 AM:

    They are at the least politicizedfactiness. "Factiness" is the new truthiness. (Did I coin that?) Or just call them Pottyfact, now on a par with Faux Noise!