When is barely true mostly false?

Is the glass half empty or half full? Can all untruths really be broken down into lies, damn lies and statistics? Is there any difference between “barely true” and “mostly false”?

Well, the answer to the first depends on your outlook. The second is the opinion of Mark Twain, who might or might not have gotten it from the writings of Benjamin Disraeli.

The third question will be decided by the readers and leadership of PolitiFact, the national political truth squad operation based at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and PolitiFact Ohio, which is based right here at The Plain Dealer.

The drill is simple: A PolitiFact editor selects a statement or allegation from a politician, political party or commentator, assigns a reporter to look into the facts that support (or don’t support) the statement, and then we print the result, with a rating that tells the public whether it is true or false, or somewhere in between.

It’s that pesky “somewhere in between” part that occasionally causes problems, and has led to some agonizing over how the ratings are named.

PolitiFact assigns one of six “Truth-O-Meter” ratings to each report. “True” and “False” are pretty obvious — although the latter leaves some room for an honest mistake, so they came up with “Pants On Fire,” a designation reserved for statements that are so wildly inaccurate as to deserve ridicule.

Then there are three ratings that step down toward False: “Mostly True,” “Half True” and the dreaded “Barely True.”

PolitiFact’s definition for this last is, “The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.”

Why the big deal over what to call it? My first thought was of the old potayto/potahto song. Something that is barely true is also mostly false, and vice versa. No difference. Let’s call the whole thing off.

But the reason the question is before the house was a bit of semantic legerdemain by the National Republican Congressional Committee. A few weeks ago, a PolitiFact Ohio inquiry into an NRCC statement that Ohio Congresswoman Betty Sutton “and her fellow Democrats went on a spending spree and now their credit card is maxed out” found the accusation to be misleading and labeled it “Barely True.”

Instead of skulking away red-faced, the NRCC issued another release announcing that PolitiFact Ohio had found its statement about Sutton to be true.

That earned the NRCC another Politi-

Fact story, this time with a label of “Pants On Fire.” It also occasioned some PolitiFact beard-stroking over whether they should change the wording so that nobody could pull the word “true” out of something that clearly was not.

Readers have responded en masse. Through Thursday, PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair had received nearly 2,000 responses through email and Facebook, the great majority coming down on the “mostly false” side.

I’ve got a different view: I wish the PolitiFact folks would just get rid of the Truth-O-Meter altogether. I think it strikes readers as a mix of fact and opinion that detracts from the overall worth of the enterprise, which distracts people from the true mission: examining the worth of politicians’ statements.

I’d guess that 95 percent of the PolitiFact complaints I get are not about the reporting and conclusions reached in the stories.

“Ninety percent of the PolitiFact stories show Democrats telling the truth and Republicans lying,” is a charge I’ve heard more than once.

Even if that were true (it’s not, the results are closer to 50/50), that’s not relevant. The goal should not be to balance the results, but to tell people whether politicians on either side of the aisle are telling them the truth. Let the chips fall.

Adair disagrees with me on the worth of the Truth-O-Meter.

“It is the heart of PolitiFact,” he said. “The stories are solid journalism, and the ratings are an appealing way of summarizing that work — not just opinion, but a sophisticated form of news analysis that offers a conclusion.”

Well, reasonable people can disagree reasonably. But here’s the takeaway: This is a valuable resource for every voter.

In 218 PolitiFact Ohio stories over the last year, The Plain Dealer has published four corrections, all on minor, auxiliary facts. Not one has changed the substance of the reporting or the conclusion of the story.

You are free to disagree with the rating — barely true, mostly false or something else. But you can depend on the reporting, and that’s the important thing.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 17, 2011.

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