September 18, 2010

A Milwaukee paper's Bizarro World PolitiFact®

So the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's PolitiFact® team has today stepped into the fray over Russ Feingold's teevee ad, "His Own Words."

The ad contrasts Fox News/Republican candidate Ron Johnson's alleged freewheeling Randian marketeer persona with whether Johnson's Oshkosh plastics company, Pacur, ever got a leg up by dint of federal/State/municipal intervention in the economy.

The "His [Ron Johnson's] Own Words" bit is this:
"I have never lobbied for some special treatment or for a government, government payment."
— said Ron Johnson, emphasis his.
The J-S first complains that Johnson was taken out of context:
For instance, the ad creates the false impression Johnson is responding directly to revelations that his business got government help. The question he was answering was whether a Milwaukee-area company deserved tax credits touted by President Obama.
And ... so what of it? When a speaker speaks, "I have never [X]," what difference does the context make? It is the negation of an existential quantifier, as they say in predicate logic: "It is not the case that there was lobbying for special treatment."

All the context in the world can't rescue the statement. It's unequivocal, no matter what inquiry it was in response to.

The J-S is rather bold in its evaluation of the ad's presentation:
There is no question the ad is misleading in its presentation.
But obviously there are plenty of questions, otherwise the J-S wouldn't be performing its review. There are always questions.

Isn't every ad "misleading" to some extent in its presentation? Of course every ad is, because there is necessarily always some missing context. There has to be. Thirty-second advertisements can't possibly deliver the entire universe of potentially relevant information.

The pertinent question is whether the ad is deliberately misleading in its presentation. One may be of that opinion, but there are always a variety of defenses available. WKOW-27 in Madison, which was the source for some of the film clips in the ad, similarly complained.

But that was more WKOW's problem than anyone else's. The Feingold ad is merely presenting the press accounts. All candidates do this, based on the premise that press reports are credibly accurate.

Look at any political candidate's website for myriad examples.

Sure, that may be a dubious premise, but the press is supposedly the professionally trained reporter of facts (notwithstanding the existence of, for example, the Journal-Sentinel's own Patrick McIlheran, who could do with his own PolitiFact® inspection, although in that case the team would be unlikely to get any other work done).

WKOW asked Feingold to "take down the ad," but even WKOW's own counsel acknowledged that the Feingold campaign was within federal copyright law's fair use doctrine. So that was a bit self-defeating.

WKOW never admitted that perhaps it was its own reporting that might have been misleading. Maybe that is the problem here.

As to the gist of the ad, however, it's the J-S that's misleading:
When it comes to describing Johnson's company as getting "government aid," the Feingold ad is correct. Independent experts and the federal government itself label the industrial revenue bonds a government subsidy. So the message about Pacur getting government help is on target.
We've been through this weeks ago,* so it's nice to see the paper finally catching up to a blog. Okay. Now, how about the rail spur?
The $75,000 grant is clearly government aid. And the rail line it helped create clearly has helped Pacur from its earliest days.
Those are the two main items under consideration: The $4M worth of government-facilitated and government-administered industrial revenue bonds which saved Johnson's company hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments and the $75,000 grant. And what is the Journal-Sentinel's PolitiFact® conclusion about Feingold's ad?
We rate the statement about government aid Half True.
So the industrial revenue bonds, which Johnson's company got, are government aid. Check: True. And the $75,000 grant is "clearly" government aid. Check: True. Thus, that makes Feingold's statement about Johnson's company getting government aid "Half True"?

Say wha? There are only the two propositions to substantiate. And the PolitiFact® team just got done substantiating both of them.

Which half of them is not true? Even if one accepts that the ad is "misleading" in some way — as any ad is bound to be — how does that detract from the veracity of its core assertions, that Johnson's company benefited from government aid in spite of his "principles"?

If the PolitiFact® mandate is to clear away confusion, it's failed here.

* See, e.g., Ron Johnson: It's not a subsidy; Ron Johnson challenges professor of economics; Dick Leinenkugel's guide to industrial bonds; Feingold has a built-in attorney at WKOW; et peter cetera.


Grant said...

that makes Feingold's statement about Johnson's company getting government aid "Half True"?

Near as I can figger, Russ' assignment gets a failing grade for:

1) Falsely connoting - according to a wingnut thinktank - a direct wire transfer from the government when in fact it was a bank-shot government subsidy through a third party.

2) Falsely attributing cognizance of the choo-choo tracks being laid outside, when in fact the co-founder of the company had no idea what was going on.

If those criticisms appeared on my paper, I think I might check my teacher's desk for methamphetamine.

Free Lunch said...

They're just grading on an curve. Ron doesn't know what he is talking about, so if he gets close, he gets a passing grade. Russ is the smartest guy in the class, so if he doesn't give a perfect answer, he gets a low grade.

Forward Our Motto said...

I'm just glad to see that I'm not the only one who has serious issues with WI PolitiFact. Seriously, some of their stuff is complete garbage.

Anonymous said...

I wrote Politiwhacked the other day. I asked why the Duffy/SocSec claim got Wisconsin's only "Pants on Fire" so far- when they had to bring in a linguist to figure out the intended meaning of the word "privatize" (which they didn't really end up figuring out) and while RoJo's ad claiming that Feingold "never" worked in the private sector merely got a "false" with clear evidence to the contrary. Apparently Politifact has a real problem with basic logic. You don't need a linguist to figure out the meaning of the word "never."

illusory tenant said...

The Cavuto/Duffy encounter is pretty funny. Cavuto: How about a means test? Duffy: We'll take a look at it. Cavuto: So maybe millionaires shouldn't collect social security? Duffy: Oh no, millionaires should definitely collect social security.

And so forth.

Nick said...

1. You left out that the government grant was given to the company before Ron Johnson was a member of that company. That's a major ding in the truth-o-meter.

2. The other item, though "technically aid" was a "subsidy" only in an interest rate being a point lower. The actual money was private, and the losses would have been eaten by the private lender, not the gov't. Was it technically "aid"... yes. On a scale from 1-10 of what most people consider "government hand outs"... it rates pretty low... 1 or 2.

illusory tenant said...

I didn't leave any of that out. See the links at the bottom of the post. All of those things have been addressed. Here's one more: "Dubious premises." You can quibble over Johnson's presence at the firm at the point the $75K grant was "confirmed," but so could anyone else. There would exist numerous points of "confirmation" in that process. Rail sidings don't appear overnight.

The bottom line is that Johnson is fighting tooth and nail against Feingold's raising the issue because he can't acknowledge that state intervention is occasionally conducive to business, otherwise the main premise of his entire political campaign collapses. This is a mixed economy, like it or not.

Read, for example, the Leinenkugel/McCoshen missive. It extols the virtues of industrial revenue bonds but nowhere does it address the dissonance between Johnson's Randian pretensions and his being the recipient of some decidedly unRandian government-backed financial instruments.