Some weirdness going on today with the Pulitzer Prize winning fact check site, Politifact. I know the editor Bill Adair, pretty well, and I support what he's doing. I think fact checking and calling out public untruths is something journalists should be doing much more of. The franchise is, in my view, a critically important addition to the news system. This makes criticism of it important, as well. Politifact needs to get this fact checking and "truth-o-meter" thing right. I hope it will. But some strange things happen along the way to that.

Last night Rachel Maddow went medieval on Politifact for the ruling I linked to below. I can see why she reacted as she did. Marco Rubio says a majority of Americans are conservative. Politifact looks into it, and says there's no evidence for that, but a plurality of those who identify as liberal, conservative or moderate choose conservative. Since "a majority of" is not "a plurality of" Rubio's statement is false, right? No, says Politifact. It's "mostly true." Huh? Then on Twitter this morning, Politifact responds to me like this: "Jay, our reasoning was that while it was short of a majority, it was still a plurality." To which I said: When you teach your kids what "plurality" means do you say to them, "basically, same as a 'majority,' so don't worry about it..."? I do not teach them that because that would be miseducating them.

For most of the morning I was just baffled by this, but I think I know where Politifact started to go wrong. The "tell" is in the first two sentences... "Liberals may want to argue with Sen. Marco Rubio’s remarks at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. But they don’t have the evidence to argue with this statement: 'The majority of Americans are conservatives.'"

What we see going on here is Politifact straying from its declared purpose--strict factuality, civic exactness--into "needling." It is here anticipating liberal reactions and playing off them. But think about it: if Rubio is wrong to say conservatives are a majority, this should bother conservatives as much as liberals, or at least those who call themselves conservatives and who care about being strictly factual. Which is the proposition Politifact stands for.

Or even those who care about winning! Suppose you want to build a conservative majority in this country. Should you declare your work done because more Americans ID themselves as conservative rather than liberal or moderate? That's not a majority. Your work is not done! Politifact isn't addressing the factual issue so much as tweaking liberals, anticipating their arguments and trying to subvert them.

And that is how it went wrong. If we sketched a thought bubble above Politfact's head on this one, it would read. "Liberals can't stand it, but more people call themselves conservatives than identify as liberals. Watch: they're going to go crazy when we point this out..." The needling factor led them astray. That's how they got to, "Jay, our reasoning was that while it was short of a majority, it was still a plurality."
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