Friday, December 19th, 2014

PolitiFact Ohio marks two years of the Truth-O-Meter

In two years we've put nearly 400 statements through the Truth-O-Meter.
In two years we've put nearly 400 statements through the Truth-O-Meter.

Observers decrying a decline in the quality of political discourse used to cite 30-second sound bites as a symptom or cause.

Thirty seconds is practically a filibuster now.

The typical statement in broadcast news stories today is closer to nine seconds. Just enough time to recite a talking point. Just enough words to fill a 140-character Tweet.

"It's an exercise in the simplification that's inherent in campaigning -- reducing complex ideas to the simplest ideas possible," said Mel Cohen, political-science professor at Miami University of Ohio. "Talking points have always been important  --repeating the same message and making sure everybody is on point with it."

In campaigning, he said, "You want to get that slogan out there, and you're not going to have time to explain it."

How much can you say in nine seconds?

Enough to grab our interest, stir our curiosity or raise our eyebrows. Enough to enlighten, mislead, arouse or enrage voters. Enough to make PolitiFact Ohio say "Really?"

This week PolitiFact Ohio marked its second anniversary of fact-checking these kinds of sound bites.

We've run 398 statements through the Truth-O-Meter since July 2010, in addition to rating flip-flops and promises kept or broken. The claims range from 98 deemed True to 36 rated Pants On Fire, a label reserved for claims both false and ridiculous.

Gov. John Kasich has faced PolitiFact Ohio's Truth-O-Meter more than anyone else, 45 times. Twenty of his statements were rated True or Mostly True.

Only one Kasich claim was rated Pants On Fire. That came during the campaign for Issue 2, the referendum on a law to overhaul collective-bargaining rules for public employees. Kasich complained about out-of-state arbitrators -- actually not allowed under the states rules for binding arbitration -- participating in contract talks with safety forces.

We fact-checked more than a dozen statements related to SB 5. Only voter identification laws rivaled it as a state issue.

Both were trumped by health care reform, aka the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It has kept the needle jumping since the Truth-O-Meter started, and it promises to remain a hot-button issue past November's election.

Be warned: The record shows that its an issue defined more by distortion and falsehood than truth. We rated 10 claims about it as False or Mostly False, and five as Pants On Fire. (Most recent was the false claim that it constitutes the largest tax increase in history. Not even close.)

PolitiFact Ohio has no Republican-Democrat quota. But Republicans have dominated Ohio politics since the November 2010 election, so more claims from Republicans and allies shown up on the than have claims from Democrats and their allies.

The scorecard: After 398 Truth-O-Meter reviews, the average rating for all claims  -- from Republicans, Democrats and others -- is just under Half True.

Statements from Republicans and Democrats on their own averaged slightly. But their surrogates -- party campaign arms, political action organizations and special-interest groups -- averaged closer to Mostly False.

Partisan groups earned the worst record. The 60 Plus Association and its pitchman, Pat Boone, were rated False or Pants On Fire for every claim they made opposing the Affordable Care Act.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee averaged False to Mostly False for nine statements. So did the National Republican Congressional Committee for its five checked statements. The National Republican Senatorial Committee averaged Mostly False in six checked statements.

PolitiFact Ohio didn't limit fact-checking to obviously partisan claims. It also looked at claims that it just found curious or interesting.

Editors were intrigued when a school board member from Worthington told the General Assembly that a bill delaying the start of classes until Labor Day would permit school districts "to shave five full weeks off the school year." That was True.

So was Kasich's eye-opening statement that Ohio's rainy day fund had grown to $240 million from 89 cents.

But a claim that the amount of water that flows into Lake Erie is much larger than the amount that flows out -- leaving us a net surplus of approximately 50 billion gallons a day -- turned out to be all wet.

Get ready for more. Rhetoric runs hottest during election season, and factual accuracy tends to slide.

"It's really intense already in Ohio," Miami's Cohen said, and politicians have entered what he calls a "permanent campaign" mode, "where even when you're in office you keep running.

"They can probably get away with [saying] a lot of things now," he said. "To be honest, I don't know how much people are paying attention."

Elections expert Justin Buchler, political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, thinks few people are influenced by political messages anyway.

In a highly fragmented media environment, he said, "anybody who wants to avoid encountering any message that does not conform to their predisposition can limit themselves to avoid hearing it" --  while anybody encountering a message inconsistent with what they believe is likely to disregard the message.

"It's very rare for facts to actually change anybody's mind," Buchler said. "I'm very skeptical that facts matter at all in modern politics. Most politicians can lie with impunity.

"The problem with being a fact checker," he added, "is that there are times when one side is more dishonest than the other. When it becomes obvious, you lose the appearance of neutrality, and there's an attempt to overcompensate for that. You dont want to be accused of bias.

"But sometimes one side is just lying. I would appreciate it if a journalist would call a lie a lie."

PolitiFact Ohio hopes the Truth-O-Meter will let readers sort that out.