« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Politifact's problem

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I’ve always enjoyed live theater. I go to a lot of performances over the course of a year, and I have opinions about what’s good and what isn’t.

I also write a well-read blog at wsau.com.

I took it upon myself to combine the two. No one in our area was writing theater reviews. I started. And now the reviews I write are some of the most popular items that we post on-line. (It also doesn’t hurt that when I write a favorable review, cast members usually share it with their friends and family on social media.) I don’t have any special qualifications. I’m just a guy who likes something, started writing about it, and took the initiative.

My point is that I’ve become one of the louder voices of what’s good and what isn’t on the local stage. And I’m the first to admit that my opinion probably carries more weight than it should. For every show I don’t like, there are bound to be many others who think it’s good. When I write a rave-review, others may have a different opinion.

Newspapers are doing something similar with political fact-checking. They’ve appointed themselves as the arbitrators of what is and isn’t true when politicians make claims. It’s a powerful role to be the ultimate judge of who-is and who-isn’t a liar. And if you’ve followed the on-air and email debate between our talk show host Jerry Bader and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you’re aware that this is a lucrative area for newspapers that they’ve grabbed onto and won’t let go of.

Some background: The Journal Sentinel’s Politifact investigated a claim made in Scott Walker’s book Unintimidated. The Governor claimed that during an Act 10 protest his opponents surrounded and began rocking a police squad car while he was inside. Politifact ruled that the claim was untrue. Their rationale was strange – there was no police report filed, no one was arrested, there were no photographs or video. Politifact said it’s untrue because there’s no evidence to back up Walker’s claim. Contrast that to a claim from political rival Mary Burke, who claimed an astronomical increase in Trek Bicycle sales overseas while she oversaw the European division of her family’s company. Politifact looked into these claims too, and declined to rate them. They said they’d revisit the issue if and when and if the company makes the data became available.

On his radio show, Jerry Bader howled about this obvious double-standard. It sparked a series of foul emails from the newspaper, presenting their Politifact ratings as infallible. They are going to defend their scores to the end, even though the journalistically-honest solution is to create a new rating of “not proven” – which could correctly be applied to both the Walker and Burke claims.

Ultimately Politifact is no different than my theater reviews. It’s a seizing-of-the-initiative. Whether or not I liked a play isn’t the final word on the subject. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the Governor lied, they’re just one loud voice that may or may not be right.

Chris Conley

Image:  American inventor Leonarde Keeler (1903-1949) testing his lie-detector on Dr. Kohler, a former witness for the prosecution at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann via Wikicommons.com