Claims that are true cannot be ‘mostly false’

Claims that are true cannot be 'mostly false'
Claims that are true cannot be 'mostly false'
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In late August, the Washington Post ran a terrific report on Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and his ties to the “fathers’ rights movement.” Of particular interest, Cuccinelli, now his party’s gubernatorial nominee, “introduced legislation on divorce law backed by national fathers’ rights groups,” which would have made it more difficult for women in unhealthy marriages to end their relationships.

Given that Cuccinelli is already struggling with women voters in the commonwealth, it hardly came as a surprise that his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, quickly pounced and turned the story into a television ad. “If Cuccinelli had it his way, a mom trying to get out of a bad marriage, over her husband’s objections, could only get divorced if she could prove adultery or physical abuse or her spouse had abandoned her or was sentenced to jail,” the ad said.

Is the claim in McAuliffe’s ad true? Yes. Does PolitiFact understand this? No (via Jamison Foser).

McAuliffe’s ad says Cuccinelli introduced legislation in 2008 that would have made it more difficult for mothers to obtain divorces…. No doubt, the bill would have it harder for moms to obtain divorces. But McAuliffe, in trying to portray it as an attack on women, omits that the legislation would have made it equally more difficult for dads to get divorces.

So McAuliffe’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give voters a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

[bangs head against desk]

For real entertainment, consider the editor’s note that appears at the top of the PolitiFact piece: “An incorrect version of this item was posted initially with a ruling of Half True. We have re-posted with the correct ruling of Mostly False.”

In other words, the site was close to getting this right, then changed its mind.

There are two main angles to this to keep in mind. The first is appreciating McAuliffe’s claim on the merits. The second has to do with PolitiFact’s future.

On the former, there’s no real ambiguity here. Amanda Marcotte summarized the issue perfectly:

The problem with deeming this claim “mostly false”: It’s 100 percent true. As reported in the Huffington Post, when Cuccinelli was a state senator, he filed not one but two laws that were aimed at eliminating Virginia’s no-fault divorce law – which would make Virginia the only state in the country not to have a law protecting its citizens’ ability to unilaterally end a marriage without giving a specific reason – though the legislation died in committee. PolitiFact admits that if Cuccinelli’s bill had become law, that would indeed mean that it would be harder for people seeking divorce to get one over their spouse’s objection. Last I checked, moms are people, making this ad indisputably true. 

Beyond that, McAuliffe’s campaign is right to be suspicious of Cuccinelli’s gendered intentions. It is true that Cuccinelli has been pointedly gender-neutral in his public statements about the bills, defending his attacks on no-fault divorce by saying, “This law has everything to do with the breakdown of the family. The state says marriage is so unimportant that if you just separate for a few months, you can basically nullify the marriage.” No doubt that’s how he’d like it to appear to female voters.

However, a deeper look suggests that his desire to eliminate no-fault divorce is about more than a gender-neutral concern for the “breakdown of the family.” The bills Cuccinelli drafted were specifically about empowering spouses who resist the divorce.

Given this, characterizing accurate claims as “mostly false” simply doesn’t make any sense.

Which leads us to our second area of interest. When Politico published an item on this late yesterday, it ran a noteworthy headline: “PolitiFact strikes again.”

The key word: “again.” As in, “Can you believe these guys have undermined their reputation again?”

In the fact-checking business, credibility is everything. When a fact-checking website with the word “fact” in its name develops a reputation for poor judgment, as PolitiFact has more than once, it’s arguably time for the website’s editors to question the value of their endeavor.