A New PolitiFiction at the Oregonian
The exercise in journalistic self-parody that calls itself PolitiFact Oregon has apparently now ditched half of its name completely.
Over the weekend, the Oregonian published a “PolitiFact” of a tweet from anti-union operative Steve Buckstein, mouthpiece for corporate-funded Cascade Policy Institute. Buckstein, who’s trying to push a so-called “right to work” proposal in Oregon, tweeted, "Did you know Wisconsin's AFSCME union has lost 50%+ of its members since no longer requiring membership?"
That sent PolitiFact writer Janie Har digging. But she didn’t find any official numbers to back up the claim. What she found was a column by right-winger Charles Krauthammer, who apparently got the figure from an article in the Wall Street Journal that cited “a person who has viewed AFSCME’s figures.”
AFSCME Wisconsin, however, disputes the claim, and even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says the state doesn’t have official numbers.
To sum up: Buckstein’s tweet isn’t backed up by any official documents (at least none sourced by Har), but is instead based on the word of someone who apparently saw internal documents, and the source of those alleged documents (the union) says they’re wrong.
Gov. Scott Walker and his Koch Industries allies were certainly successful in attacking public employees—taking away their collective bargaining rights, cutting their wages and benefits, putting up massive obstacles to union membership, and laying off thousands of workers. That has surely led to a drop in union membership.
But that’s not what Buckstein is implying here. He’s making a loaded statement that half of AFSCME’s members just up and decided to leave the union. His assertion certainly helps him drive his agenda, but it isn’t supported by any facts.
So what ruling did PolitiFact Oregon give Buckstein’s claim? “Mostly True.”
That’s right—despite offering no verifiable source to support the statement, PolitiFact gave Buckstein their stamp of approval. Har and her editors have no way of knowing if Buckstein’s claim is true, only that he repeated something that someone else said.
This fails at least three key principles to which PolitiFact claims to adhere:
“Choosing claims to check:
In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:
- Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.”
“Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.”
“Burden of proof -- People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.”
At the Oregonian branch of the PolitiFact enterprise, these principles don’t matter when there’s an opportunity to help a political ally spread right-wing talking points. Buckstein made a loaded political implication based on highly dubious facts, and PolitiFact Oregon is generously helping him spread his message.