Recently ABC News reported that a Justice Department Inspector General audit revealed that the DOJ had been spending taxpayer money a little too freely. The pricey muffins quickly became an oft repeated gag exemplifying government waste.
But what are the facts?
Fear not PolitiFans, the team was on the case:
The $16 muffin started with a 122-page report released Sept. 20, 2011, from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General. The report followed a 2007 audit that found few internal controls on conference spending, especially for food and beverages. New guidelines were issued, and this year’s report was a check-up to see how the department was doing.
Not so great, according to the recent report.
But we can't just take PolitiFact's word for it. No worries. As you already know, PolitiFact likes to quote their sources directly. They give the facts to us straight in this excerpt from the IG report:
All the conferences occurred at major hotels that applied service fees – usually around 20 percent – to the cost of already expensive menu items. Our assessment of food and beverage charges revealed that some DOJ components did not minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines. For example, one conference served $16 muffins, while another served Beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres that cost $7.32 per serving...
To the untrained eye it would appear that ABC's report was dead on accurate. That's why fact checking is better left to the pros:
Media reports summarized the inspector general’s overall negative findings, but couldn’t resist starting with the $16 muffin. In fairness, it was a verbatim quote from the report.
However, reading deeper into the report revealed that the $16 muffins were not completely a la carte. The department received some complimentary beverages and some fruit, though whether additional items were served at breakfast or at a later break is not quite clear.
Justice Department officials also told the inspector general that they were provided the meeting space without charge, though the report notes it’s departmental policy to use federal government meeting spaces whenever possible. And, the inspector general found that conference planners didn’t do any kind of cost breakdowns to show that the government got a better deal overall when it purchased food and received free meeting space.
Well, this can only lead us to one conclusion: The ABC story is simply false. I suppose there's gonna be some awkward moments around the water cooler the next time PF editor Bill Adair shows up on ABC to do an interview. Wait, you knew PolitiFact and ABC have a partnership, right? Nevermind though, because they wouldn't let a silly little partnership get in the way of spreading the truth:
|Image from PolitiFact.com (Arrow added)|
What the what?
Because the federal government didn't pay $16 for a muffin even if it paid too much for breakfast, we rate O’Reilly’s statement Mostly False.
Instead of passing this rating off to ABC news, or NPR, or the New York Times, PolitiFact made a deliberate choice to saddle Bill O'Reilly with the baggage. The story was widely reported, why pick on Bill? Come to think of it, PolitiFact even noted in their rating that the $16 muffin "was a verbatim quote from the report." Why not ding the Inspector General?
The answer is simple: Ratings.
PolitiFact isn't the benevolent truth seekers they portray themselves as. The facts are Bill O'Reilly made the statement on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If you've ever gone to PolitiFact's Facebook page you know that the number of commenters goes through the roof if they even mention Stewart's name. I also happen to know that my other blog experiences abnormally high traffic and search hits whenever Stewart and PolitiFact get in a tussle. The opportunity to make O'Reilly look bad while making an appearance on Stewart's show was a can't miss opportunity to gin up publicity from Stewart's followers.
Far be it from me to oppose publishing material with the intention of grabbing web traffic. But with PolitiFact there's a disturbing problem with misleading readers. The dishonesty stems from PolitiFact's insistence on urging readers to infer that a subject's overall rating on the Truth-O-Meter is an indication of that person's general honesty. Here's a quote from the latest app they're shilling:
Our new PolitiFact app allows you to see Truth-O-Meter ratings in ways that aren't possible with our website. In some cases, the picture isn't pretty.
The app allows you to compare our tally of all Truth-O-Meter rulings from PolitiFact National with the totals for individual subjects and groups. So for the first time, we can see how pundits' and talk show hosts' ratings compare with the overall count.
The results, shown in the table below, reveal that pundits and talk show hosts get more False and Pants on Fire ratings -- and fewer Trues -- than the overall totals. (Keep that in mind the next time you're watching cable news!)
Yeah, no problem with those stats.
So far Bill Adair has done his best Sgt. Schultz impression and dutifully dances around the topic of selection bias. But selection bias at PolitiFact does exist, and it's ratings like this that expose that. There were dozens of media organizations, not to mention the IG who actually authored the audit, that this Mostly False rating could and should have gone to. Instead it's recorded as a demerit in the "non-partisan" ratings file of a conservative pundit. Picking O'Reilly was an intentional, political choice.
So the next time you hear someone dragging out the same old tired argument about PolitiFact "checking both sides" you should recognize that it's an argument that is based on bogus numbers and PolitiFact's own ideological bias. And whenever you see PolitiFact promoting their apps or their "guides" to help you "get the facts" of a candidates statements, remember that those specific statements were chosen for a specific reason.
And it wasn't to sort out the truth.
After Hours: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that O'Reilly's underlying point was that the muffins, regardless of their exact price, were an example of an out of touch government unwisely spending taxpayer money. As Bryan White over at Sublime Bloviations often points out, PolitiFact already has a strict policy regarding numbers claims:
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
Complimentary beverages and fruit notwithstanding.