PolitiFact Should Fact-Check Itself in Bogus Ruling

Update: PolitiFact acknowledges that the major elements of my statement were indeed true, before RULING that the statement was “Mostly False”. Read their twisted logic here … 

Read the full story – what the PolitiFact article did not tell you – below.

Commentary, April 4, 2014

Earlier this week our Center published its Spotlight On Spending report. That same day the Providence Journal published a related OpEd piece that I co-authored along with David Williams of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which partnered with the Center in creating and publishing the report.

PolitiFact, the Journal’s fact-checking unit, noticed a slight discrepancy in the description of a the same item that was referred in both my opinion piece and in the report. PolitiFact believes this semantic discrepancy is of significant enough public value to warrant an investigation; I do not. It completely misses the material reason why this item was included our report.

As it turns out, it was PolitiFact that made a significant error in mis-characterizing my original statement. See below for the explanation.

Sometime next week, PolitiFact will rule on the truth-fullness of my statement in the OpEd. Our Center believes in government transparency and applies that belief to our exchange with PolitiFact. It is important that interested readers know the whole story.

Questions and Clarifications Posed by PolitiFact’s Gene Emery

THREE SEPARATE EMAILS:

1) Hi Mike,I want to fact-check the statement in your commentary, “A grant for $5,000 went to teach an employee at a company that makes ornamental business card holders how to use Facebook and Twitter.” That seems to be referencing the part of the report that talks about “$5,000 to provide social media training for employees at Ahler’s Designs.” So it is one employee or several employees? And did the $5,000 just for teaching someone to use Facebook and Twitter, or was there more involved? If you could point me to your sources, that would useful. Thanks, — Gene Emery

2) That factoid was featured in your Journal commentary. Not only was it repeated in the Journal story the next day, it was played up prominently by Channel 10 and GoLocalProv.I asked you about it because you are the lead author of the commentary, and paying $5,000 to teach one person how to sign up for Facebook and Twitter, which millions have figured out for themselves, seems pretty outrageous. However the report, and the footnoted document, seems to tell a slightly different story: more than one employee and broader training in social media. Actually, according to the reference document in your own report, it’s 3 employees trained at $2,500 and 1 student trained at the same price. So is the report in error, did you misstate the facts in your commentary, or is your commentary referencing something else? –Gene
.
3) In the interim, I spoke to the company. They say 3 employees and 2 students received 32 hours of training over eight weeks, making the argument that it’s important for today’s businesses to know the ins and outs of social media, and being a business using social media involves a lot more than setting up a personal Facebook account. I mention this because you might want to react to that argument. — Gene
.

Full Response by Mike Stenhouse

We agree with PolitiFact that taxpayer dollars being spent on something that millions have figured out for themselves is outrageous. We question, however, the public service value of fact-checking the semantic difference between “an employee” and “employees’ when a much larger public policy question is at the core of the issue.

There was no mistake in either statement. However there was a mistake in PolitiFact’s characterization of my commentary piece in an email that asked me to respond to the alleged statement –  “‘$5,000 to teach one person how to sign up for Facebook and Twitter’, which millions have figured out for themselves, seems pretty outrageous.” In my commentary, I never made that statement; I never used the term ‘sign-up’, but instead used ‘how to use’; nor did I say ‘one person’; I said ‘an employee’. For a fact-checking organization to call a statement I never made “outrageous”, is outrageous in and of itself.

Both statements accurately identify the same material finding: that $5000 in taxpayer money went to a private company for social media training.[http://www.gwb.ri.gov/pdfs/FY13ExpressGrantAwards.pdf]

The more superfluous descriptions of how that funding was used vary only in that the statement from the OpEd describes a subset of the broader and more inclusive statement from the report.

  • It is true that “an employee” received training, even if others received training as well

  • It is true that the Ahler’s Designs makes business card holders

  • It is presumably true that Facebook and Twitter were part of the larger social media training

The reason we included this item in our report, is not because of the amount of money spent per employee, as PolitiFact appears to be concerned with, but rather that any taxpayer dollars were spent in this regard in the first place. This spending was outrageous, regardless of whether or not the business owner feels that it was important for her business.

Either way, this scenario where many companies pay into a fund that gets re-distributed to just a few, is itself unfair, while also creating potential for cronyism and insider politics. In fact, an additional GWB post notes that in 2013, this same company, “Ahlers Design received $8,150 to train three employees; it also received $8,150 in youth bonus funding.” [http://www.rihric.com/news/news062013.htm] .

The lack of transparency and specificity in the GWB’s reporting apparently also has confused someone at Ahler’s or at GWB. The referenced source in our report indicates that four employees received training; yet Ahler’s stated to PolitiFact that five employees received training. Will this discrepancy be PolitiFact checked? Is this even an important distinction? Like the original premise of this PolitiFact investigation … I think not.

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