Truth-O-Meter malfunctions in debate critique


At first, I'll admit, I was excited to see my name in the Dec. 10 Oregonian, particularly since it wasn't in the police round-up or on the obituary page.

Rather, there it was on the front page, in the daily paper's PolitiFact Oregon column. The feature, started by the St. Petersburg Times in 2007, is now localized in nine other major metro papers.

It allows journalists to parse pronouncements of politicians, pundits and public officials, requires them to list their sources and then tops the column with a clever Truth-O-Meter, that ranges from 'True' to 'Pants on Fire.'

My name was in the column not because of any statement I made but a question I asked during a 1st Congressional Dis­trict candidate debate televised on KATU-TV on Nov. 27.

The forum was co-hosted by the Independent Party of Oregon, so I led off by asking each candidate to cite three specific instances of where they differed from their parties 'on matters of policy that are either now before Congress or we can expect to come before Congress in the next couple of years.'

Rob Cornilles, the Republican hopeful, was up first and gave three good examples: his refusal to sign an anti-tax pledge or support the GOP's efforts repeal Obama's healthcare act and jobs bill.

Then Suzanne Bonamici, the Democrat, took her turn.

She offered a case from the state legislature where she bucked a fellow Democrat who had bottled up a bill she favored. She noted that in the primary she was open to a free-trade package that was then pending before Congress, while her two Democratic rivals opposed the deals. Finally, she claimed to have pushed her party on stronger consumer protection legislation in Salem.

My colleagues at The Oregonian didn't address Cornilles' answers but found each of Bonamici's three responses to be faulty.

Here's their logic: The bill Bonamici prodded out of committee, which was backed by the insurance industry, ended up passing 28-2, so it wasn't exactly controversial among Democrats.

Similarly, her free-trade stance, while at odds with some Democratic-allied unions, is basically the same as three of the five Democrats in Oregon's Congressional delegation. Again, hardly a blow for partisan independence.

But her third example, about her role as a champion for consumer protection, seemed to have some legs.

The Oregonian did some digging and talked to Angela Martin, a consumer lobbyist in Salem, who insisted that 'many Democrats would have been happy approving watered-down legislation' without Bonamici's efforts inside her caucus.

Here, it seems, Bonamici offered an example that actually stood up to scrutiny.

But The Oregonian saw it differently. 'Let's accept that Bonamici goaded skittish Democrats into supporting more consumer friendly legislation,' the paper wrote. 'That still doesn't make up for the fact that siding with consumers is supposed to be a key part of the Democratic Party platform. To suggest otherwise is silly. We could rate this a Pants on Fire.'

Really? Somebody should check the wiring in that Truth-O-Meter.

Look, I wasn't happy with Bonamici's answers.

I asked her about measures before Congress and she pulled out examples (including two weak ones) from the state legislature and the campaign trail.

So, let's call her evasive. Slap her wrist for being a bad listener. She may, as The Oregonian claimed, even be 'silly.' But that's a far cry from being a liar, which is the label the state's leading newspaper stuck on her - after its reporting found no factual errors in her statements.

Perhaps the shot at Bonamici was an effort to even the score: a quick tally of the PolitiFact Archives shows that while less than half of Democrats' statements are found to be false, about three-fourths of Republicans fail The Oregonian's Truth-O-Meter test. (Cornilles is batting .500.)

Regardless of the motive, the column veered from the clear path of fact-checking and into muddy matters of opinion.

Is the Oregon Democratic Party pro-consumer? That's a great topic for a debate but a lousy question for a journalistic lie-detector test.

The national PolitiFact column has been criticized for similar practices, most recently by Mark Hemmingway, a writer for the Weekly Standard, who complained earlier this month that 'the media's new 'fact checkers' remain obdurately unwilling to let opinions simply be opinions.'

Sure, I was disappointed Bonamici didn't answer my question and I, too, take issue with her political analysis.

So, when she comes in for her endorsement interview, we will hold her feet to the fire. But we'll leave her pants alone.