Shots Across the Bow

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More Spin Masquerading as Truth from the Knoxville News Sentinel

Bright and early Sunday morning, Jack McElroy trumpeted a new addition to the KNS. The Commercial Appeal and the KNS have joined forces to create Politifact Tennessee, an off shoot of the Pulitzer Prize winning effort by the St Petersburg Times to fact check the statements of politicians, and to do so without bias or agenda.

Yeah, right.

According to Jack:
The project may sound like silly, and biased, journalism. But PolitiFact, as the initiative was called, adhered to the highest standards of reporting. Political rhetoric was checked against strictly verifiable data. All sources of information were revealed, and the reasons for the Truth-O-Meter ratings were clearly spelled out.


Let's take a closer look, shall we?

From the Politifact Tennessee home page:
Every day, reporters and researchers from the Commercial Appeal and News Sentinel examine statements by Tennessee elected officials and candidates and anyone else who speaks up in the political discourse. We research their statements and rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter:

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.


Now, as I read through the possible categories, I'm seeing a lot of subjective words in what should be objective criteria. Words like "significant", "critical facts", "partially", and so on. The true and false categories are fairly clear, but the Mostly True, Half True, and Mostly False are clearly areas where subjective bias can easily be masked as objectivity. After all, who decides which facts are critical and which are not? Who decides which details are important and which ones are not? And on what basis do they make those decisions?

This presents a serious problem with the root conceit of Politifact; the folks involved are making subjective judgments and labeling them as objective facts. This misrepresentation is more in keeping with propaganda than journalism.

The potential for abuse is demonstrated by the very first set of stories in the KNS. They "fact checked" Marsha Blackburn's statements about incandescent light bulbs and ruled her statement as "Mostly False."

Let's examine the article to see how they came up with that conclusion.

The headline for the article is:

New energy standards will take away "our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes."

Actually, that is not what Blackburn said. She said (quote appears below) that the new standards will take away our incandescent light bulbs, not our freedom of choice and selection. There's a huge difference in both the text and subtext presented here that reflects the bias of Bartholomew Sullivan, the author.

This is not a good start.

The sub head is:

Marsha Blackburn says she is battling for freedom of choice – for energy-inefficient light bulbs

Snarky headlines do not contribute to the appearance of objectivity. Even worse, this header puts words into Blackburn's mouth that she most assuredly did not say. Sullivan is belittling Blackburn and her position, which is irrelevant to the veracity of her statement.

The article then provides this partial quote, and a link to the video it comes from:
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has been on a crusade to, as she put it on the House floor in July, prevent higher efficiency standards for light bulbs from creating "a de facto ban on the incandescent bulb." In an appearance on the Fox Business Channel in December, she re-calibrated her rhetorical salvo when she told Stuart Varney she’s fighting "to keep our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes."


Before I get to the quote, notice the loaded words used in this introductory paragraph. She's on a "crusade". She had to "recalibrate her rhetorical salvo." These are not neutral, objective descriptors; they are carefully crafted to provoke an emotional reaction to the content of the story. Along with the snarky sub head, they paint Blackburn as an obsessed ideologue who is in favor of wasting energy.

That is an editorial, subjective judgement, not a fact. It goes to her personality, not her statement.

Now, let's put the quote into context. The subject of the video was not light bulbs, but the accomplishments of the Republican controlled House. The segment lasts for 3:40, of which Marsha spends roughly 30 seconds talking about the light bulbs. Her full statement was:
"We have been able to block the money that EPA would use to implement the new energy efficiency standards that take away our incandescent light bulbs, so that is, that is in this Minibus that we are going to pass today. We are going to be able to hang on to our light bulbs one more year and be able to keep up this fight to keep our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes."


So we have two parts to this statement to fact check. The first is that the new energy efficiency standards are going to take away the traditional tungsten incandescent light bulb. The second is that this will limit our freedom of choice and selection.

From the article:

The Obama administration issued a statement before the vote that said consumers still have freedom of choice under the law. "Any type of bulb can be sold as long as it meets the efficiency requirements. In sum, the bill would hinder an opportunity to save American consumers money, while enhancing energy efficiency and reducing harmful emissions associated with energy production."

Let's translate this statement. "You can choose to buy any light bulb we allow you to buy."

Hardly freedom of choice.
Supporters of the standards say the higher-efficiency bulbs mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act not only save energy but, despite higher up-front costs, save consumers money over time because the bulbs last longer.

This claim is not sourced. What bulb types are these unnamed supporters referring to? Florescent? Compact Florescent? Halogen? Some undeveloped technology to be named later? Any links or sources for any of this? And more importantly, how does this statement relate to Blackburn's statement? It goes to justifying the law, not addressing the truth of either of her claims.

So does the imposition of higher energy standards amount to a "de facto ban" on incandescent bulbs? Does it strip away "our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes?"

The short answer is no. Existing inefficient bulbs will stay in circulation and will continue to be sold to consumers until supplies run out. And while traditional tungsten-element bulbs can’t meet the higher standards and will not be manufactured, light bulb companies are continuing to make incandescent halogen bulbs, although they are more expensive than incandescent tungsten. So the only way you could consider there to be a ban would be if you couldn't afford the halogen bulbs.

OK, here's the only part of the article that actually addresses Blackburn's statement. While Sullivan admits that traditional bulbs will not be manufactured anymore, which concedes the truth of the first part of Blackburn's statement, he argues that since replacements are available, you haven't really had your choice taken away. By similar logic, the ban on saccharine wasn't really a ban on saccharine because you could still buy aspartame. In both cases, your choice has been limited by government regulation, infringing on your freedom of choice.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supports the higher standards, points out that the trade association for domestic light manufacturers, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which would appear to have an interest in a banning of its products, has embraced the increased efficiency standards. The NRDC also notes that a factory in St. Marys, Pa., is retooling to make more efficient incandescent bulbs, creating domestic jobs.

In perhaps the most telling endorsement of the higher standards, Barry Edison Sloane, the great-grandson of the inventor of the incandescent bulb, Thomas Edison, called those who sought their repeal "narrow-minded." Consumers Union, which produces Consumer Reports, also endorses the higher standards.

Two paragraphs with more endorsements of the new standards, and completely irrelevant to whether Blackburn's statement was true or false.
Traditional 100-watt incandescent bulbs would have been the first to fail to meet the new standards that were to have taken effect Jan. 1. Congress in late December effectively delayed that until October 2012. Other traditional incandescents will fail to meet the lumens-per-watt standard between then and 2014, when the standard for 40-watt bulbs kicks in. Several kinds of incandescent bulbs within those wattage ranges are exempt from the new standards, including appliance bulbs, colored bulbs and stage lighting in theaters.

This paragraph explains the process of removing traditional incandescent bulbs from the marketplace, and is material that completely backs Blackburn's claims.
PolitiFact has checked many other assertions regarding the light bulb controversy, finding a claim by the conservative political action committee AmeriPAC that "you will be mandated by federal law to get rid of your existing light bulbs" to be a "Pants on Fire"-level misrepresentation. Others have been equally misleading, particularly Varney, who can be found in a 2009 debate with environmentalist actor Ed Begley Jr. stating: "The government is telling me I may not have incandescent lights."

A lovely little paragraph that again, has nothing to do with Blackburn's statement, but is used to make her look bad through association.

Let me illustrate how this associative guilt thing works. Instead of describing Ed Begley Jr. as an 'environmentalist actor,' what if he were described as '9-11 truther and conspiracy theorist Ed Begley Jr.?' It would be just as accurate, but it would certainly prejudice the reader against his opinions, would it not?

Is that how McElroy defines the highest standards of journalism? Guilt by association?

And the conclusion:
Blackburn has been more careful in qualifying the language she uses to advance her cause. Because the standards will ultimately bring about the end of traditional incandescent bulbs, there is an element of truth in Blackburn’s claims. But consumers will still have plenty of choice of different types of bulbs, even if traditional incandescents are not for sale.

We rate the statement Mostly False.


In Blackburn's full, unedited statement, she is clearly talking about traditional incandescent bulbs being removed from the market, thus limiting consumer choice by government fiat. Those bulbs will be removed from the market. Blackburn's statement is mostly true. However, because Sullivan clearly agrees with the new standards, he chooses to ignore this basic fact and instead uses selective quotation, emotionally loaded language, unsourced and irrelevant statements, as well camouflaged subjective judgments to reach his "ruling" of Mostly False.

In other words, PolitiFact is little more than opinion based journalism masquerading as fact checking.

For this feature to be worthwhile, there are some significant changes that must be made.
  1. No snark. At all. Straight forward old school journalism rules apply. Just the facts and any relevant context with opinions and/or assumptions clearly stated.

  2. Only information that directly reflects the veracity of the claim being checked is allowed. No discussion of the merits of the issues involved, just the truth of the statement.

  3. Every claim for and against the veracity of the statement must be sourced and linked to allow checking by the reader for accuracy and context. If you include a quote from a speech, there better be a link to the transcript. If experts or supporters are cited, there better be a side bar with their name and where the information came from.

  4. A rebuttal by the subject should be included in the article.


Just for fun, here is how I would have written up this article, using the exact same information available to Mr. Sullivan.

Marsha Blackburn claims that the new energy efficiency standards will "take away our incandescent light bulbs."

Plans "to keep up this fight to keep our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes."

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., claimed during a speech on the House floor last summer that the new energy efficiency standards amount to "a de facto ban on the incandescent bulb" and during a December interview on Fox Business Channel took credit, along with the rest of the Republican led House, for delaying implementation of the standards.

Her full statement during the interview was:
"We have been able to block the money that EPA would use to implement the new energy efficiency standards that take away our incandescent light bulbs, so that is, that is in this MiniBus that we are going to pass today. We are going to be able to hang on to our light bulbs one more year and be able to keep up this fight to keep our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes."


Blackburn has said she was concerned with government limiting consumer choice.

The Obama administration issued a statement that said that consumers still have freedom of choice under the law. "Any type of bulb can be sold as long as it meets the efficiency requirements."

So does the imposition of higher energy standards amount to a "de facto ban" on incandescent bulbs? Does it limit "our freedom of choice and selection in the light bulbs we have in our homes" as Blackburn said it did?

The short answer is yes. Traditional tungsten-element bulbs can’t meet the higher standards and will not be manufactured and therefore will be removed from the marketplace once the last ones are sold. However, there will be some incandescent bulbs still available. Light bulb companies are continuing to make incandescent halogen bulbs, which are more efficient than the traditional tungsten bulbs, but also more expensive, and do pose a fire hazard. Also, some traditional incandescent bulbs will still be manufactured, mainly for appliance lights, and for stage and theater lights. But as Blackburn’s spokesman Mike Reynard said: "It’s a de facto ban because traditional incandescent light bulbs can’t meet the new energy standards. An American innovation may be able to create a new incandescent bulb 2.0 -- which can meet the new standards -- but it won’t be the incandescent bulb your parents grew up with."

Traditional 100-watt incandescent bulbs would have been the first to fail to meet the new standards that were to have taken effect Jan. 1. Congress in late December effectively delayed that until October 2012. Other traditional incandescents will fail to meet the lumens-per-watt standard between then and 2014, when the standard for 40-watt bulbs kicks in.

Our judgment:

Because the standards will ultimately bring about the end of traditional incandescent bulbs, Blackburn’s claims are accurate. But because some incandescent bulbs, including some tungsten types, will still be manufactured for special uses, and because the consumers can choose to use halogens, which are a type of incandescent light, the idea of an outright ban overstates the truth.

We rate the statement Mostly True.


No snark, no extraneous information, no bias, and no opinions hidden as facts. I even changed the wording of the conclusion from 'ruling', which implies some sort of objectivity, to 'judgment', which acknowledges that we are all subjective in our evaluations of the relevant facts.
Posted by Rich
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Hi. Good analysis on the subjective/objective criteria for Politifact. But their take on Blackburn is pretty accurate. There is no ban on incandescent bulbs. Any assertion is misleading. What the government wants to do is to raise the standards for these types of bulbs and make them more efficient. That's just product evolution. Thanks for the food for thought.
Posted by Richard Thompson  on  01/18  at  10:01 AM

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