PolitiFact, please define "false"

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

I'm pretty sure "false" doesn't mean "well, we have no real way of knowing whether it's true or not, but for now, we lean towards thinking it probably isn't, though we reserve the right to change our minds later."

But that's what PolitiFact seems to think it means. The St. Petersburg Times fact-checking web site declares Nancy Pelosi's claim that the Bush administration didn't tell her it was using torture "false," though it pretty much acknowledges it lacks solid basis for doing so:

At PolitiFact, we normally would be reluctant to make a Truth-O-Meter ruling in a he-said, she-said situation, but in this case, the evidence goes beyond the competing accounts from Pelosi and Goss. We are persuaded by the CIA timeline, which the agency says is based on "an extensive review of (the CIA's) electronic and hardcopy files."

It's also important to note that the timeline that contradicts Pelosi was put together at the behest of an administration controlled by her own party. That document provides compelling -- albeit sparsely worded -- evidence that Pelosi's recollection is incorrect. There may be further evidence on this that emerges in the future. Rep, Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has asked Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta to release the CIA briefing notes that the timeline is based on. We reserve the right to change our ruling if new information emerges that contradicts the CIA timeline, but for now, we rule Pelosi's statement False.

Believe it or not, this actually overstates the evidence against Pelosi. Earlier, PolitiFact admitted that the CIA timeline does not directly contradict Pelosi:

Although Goss says waterboarding was part of the discussion, there's nothing in the CIA timeline that states it was specifically discussed in the briefing Pelosi attended. So if we stick strictly to public documents released so far, there's no conclusive evidence that Pelosi was briefed on waterboarding.

So, at one point, PolitiFact tells us that the CIA timeline does not say waterboarding was discussed in the meeting Pelosi attended. Later, in order to justify its conclusion that Pelosi's claim not to have been told about waterboarding is "false," PolitiFact tells us the CIA timeline "contradicts" Pelosi and provides "compelling" evidence that her memory is incorrect. Well, which is it?

The real problem here is PolitiFact's insistance on declaring Pelosi's statement "true" or "false," when the painfully obvious reality is that PolitiFact just doesn't know whether it is true or false. Other media would be wise to take PolitiFact's conclusion with a grain of salt.

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