If the 2016 presidential primary is defined by one thing, it is media bias. From the Washington Post releasing 16 anti-Bernie Sanders articles in 16 hours (the backlash of which prompted them to release 16 pro-Bernie articles) to what I am about delve into, conspiracy theories about the mainstream media having an agenda have never seemed more credible.
Politifact, the fact checker, has been putting out some questionable material as of late. I first began to notice a problem a few months ago when I saw a “fact check” of a statement from Bill Clinton that repealing Glass-Steagall had “nothing to do with” the Subprime Mortgage Crisis. Politifact gave this a “mostly true” rating.
The argument made by the author of the piece, Lauren Carrol, is that since Travelers and Citicorp were able to merge into Citigroup with Glass-Steagall still in place, the law had been rendered ineffective by the other deregulatory bills passed in the 90’s. Additionally, the size of the banks did not cause the speculative trading that led directly to the meltdown. Therefore, all things considered, the actual repeal of Glass-Steagall did not play a significant role in the meltdown.
However, this narrative misses several important points which render the ruling flawed.
To begin with, while Citigroup did form, it did not do so legally, and would have been subject to fines and a break up by the federal government had Bill Clinton not signed Gramm-Leach-Blilely into law. In fact, legitimizing the merger was the primary motivating factor behind the law. It is true that another Clinton law, the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994, helped the banks move towards consolidation by allowing banking across state lines, but Gramm-Leach-Bliley was the big kahuna — if you will — that really legalized megabanks.
Secondly, while repeal of Glass-Steagall was not what deregulated subprime derivatives trading, it did have an impact on how that trading was conducted. The size of the megabanks allowed them to set the standard for banking in America. They were able exert undue influence over the rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and Moody’s. Because the market relies on ratings, when these agencies were compromised, it undermined the market, allowed for the subprime derivatives market to grow, and ensured that companies like AIG took on more risk than they should have.
When the mortgage delinquency rates began to skyrocket, nobody was sure of the value of the products they were holding. In response, lenders stopped lending, which hurt small and medium size businesses. Of course, all of these issues can be traced back to too-big-to-fail. This conclusion is consistent with the findings of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which starts off its report on the Subprime Crisis, “Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse,” with a section titled “Rise of Too Big To Fail U.S. Financial Institutions.”
I reached out multiple times to the Politifact regarding these problems with their narrative, but did not receive a response. Well, it has been a few months since the article came out, and I assumed it was a one off. However, after Sanders’ win in Wisconsin, I began noticing problematic ratings from the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checker. I decided to do some research. What I found out led me to write this article:
Politifact is an arm of the Tampa Bay Times, which recently endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. This endorsement makes me question the fact checker’s coverage and the choices of statements to be checked. Politifact has given Clinton more than double the attention it has given Sanders — 183 statements from the former compared to 82 statements from the latter.
(It is worth mentioning that as the race has gone on, the coverage has evened out. In February, Politifact covered 14 statements from each candidate. However, it gave Bernie four “Mostly False” or “False” ratings, while only giving Clinton one.)
Going through those fact checks, I found several other suspect rulings.
On April 4th, Politifact checked a statement by Bernie Sanders made on March 30, whereby the Vermont Senator claimed this his free college tuition plan for public colleges and universities would be paid for by his tax on Wall Street speculation. Here’s the exact quote: “I think the idea is sound…It is paid for…by a tax on Wall Street’s speculation. When Wall Street’s illegal behavior destroyed our economy, the middle class bailed them out. It is now time for them to help the middle class.”
Even though Sanders never clarified if he meant “exclusively” or “primarily,” and even though Politifact acknowledged in the piece that two thirds of the cost would be covered by his Wall Street tax, the statement received a “mostly false” rating.
On March 7th, Politifact again gave Bernie Sanders a “mostly false” rating for quoting a number by the Economic Policy Institute that NAFTA had cost the U.S. 800,000 jobs. Politifact reasoned that since there were conflicting studies from other think tanks like the Brookings Institute (owned by a Clinton ally), the claim could not be true.
However, with especially complicated questions like this, Politifact’s standard is not to rate true or false. Rather, the fact checker analyzes the issue without a rating. The existence of other numbers does not invalidate the fact that Sanders claim is supported by a study. This isn’t even an example of cherry-picking. Giving a rating — especially mostly false — gives too much credence to one study over another.
Perhaps the most obvious display of Politifact’s bias involves one of these statements that require more of an explanation than simply a rating on the “Truth-O-Meter.”
Recently, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders got into a dispute over the former’s ties to the fossil fuels industry. Clinton denies that she’s received money from the fossil fuels industry or lobbyists, and insists that all the contributions come from individuals. Bernie Sanders, citing Greenpeace, says otherwise. Politifact decided to weigh in with an article titled “Sorting Out Hillary Clinton’s Fossil Fuel Contributions.”
As an astute writer on the website Daily Kos, going by the name Alteredego, pointed out that for the most part, the article presents an accurate take on the matter, but then it takes a surprising leap by not counting donations to Clinton’s affiliated super PACs by fossil fuels and oil interests:
”[I]t’s a stretch to draw a direct line between those super PAC donations and Clinton’s campaign. Under federal law, the candidates have no control over super PAC spending.”
Technically, coordination between a campaign and a super PAC is illegal, as Politifact points out. However, illegality doesn’t necessarily mean ‘strictly enforced.’ At least some of Politifact’s journalists are aware of this fact, as evidenced by this statement from a past article by Linda Qiu:
“Affiliated super PACs are often created or staffed by the candidate’s political allies and act as extensions of the official campaigns. Though these independent groups are not allowed to donate directly to or coordinate with campaigns, they’ve have found ways to toe the line.
Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager Guy Cecil is at the helm of the pro-Clinton Priorities Action USA, while her current campaign manager has met with potential PAC donors.”
The International Business Times points out that Clinton’s relationship to these independent groups is historic for a Democratic presidential candidate.
“Last year the New York Times reported that Clinton would “begin personally courting donors for a ‘super PAC’ supporting her candidacy, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race.” In November, the Times reported that former President Bill Clinton would be a “special guest” at a donor meeting for the group, called “Priorities USA Action.” The super PAC — which is run by Guy Cecil, a former top staffer in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign — has raised more than $40 million to support her in 2016.”
Politifact’s statement that Clinton’s campaign does not coordinate with super PACs, is grossly misleading. Correct the Record and American Bridge 21st Century have both benefitted from fossil fuels and oil money — one notable donor being Lee Fikes, a Texas oil tycoon. Both of these super PACs are owned by David Brock, an ally of the Clinton campaign who also serves on the board of “Priorities USA Action.”
Every media outlet is subject to bias from owners, investors, and parent companies, then editors, and lastly journalists. We can detect it by analyzing the stories they run, the language they use, who they quote, and how those people are quoted. Politifact is no exception.
Bias is fine as long as it is openly admitted because it allows people to formulate their own opinions by taking the source into account. To this end, I admit to my readers that I am for Bernie Sanders for president. However, where bias becomes troublesome is where it isn’t admitted — especially so when we see it from “fact checkers.”
This presidential primary has been eye-opening. We are seeing just how much influence the political establishment has in our media.