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Arianna Huffington vs. PolitiFact . . . and Liz Cheney Escapes

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That's a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Juvenal, which roughly means "Who watches the watchmen?" But what's Latin for "Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?"

Recently, there was a tussle between blogger/media titan Arianna Huffington and PolitiFact.com that raises this question.

PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the St. Petersburg Times, vets statements from elected officials and others and rates them on its Truth-O-Meter. Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on June 6, Huffington noted that Halliburton, which has had a role in the BP oil spill, "defrauded the American taxpayer of hundreds of millions of dollars." Liz Cheney, whose father was Halliburton's chief executive before becoming George Bush's vice president, was also part of the round-table discussion that day. She declared that Huffington was living on another planet and that her assertion had "no relationship to the facts." Huffington responded, "I'm so glad PolitiFact is going to be checking this."

In April, Jake Tapper, the interim host of "This Week," had asked PolitiFact to fact-check guests on the show, accepting an idea first proposed by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. So, as she was jousting on-air with Cheney, Huffington thought she could corner her. And PolitiFact was game. As the site put it, "We have a hard time resisting when people on national television ask us to fact-check them." PolitiFact assigned one of its veteran vetters, Angie Drobnic Holan, to the case, and three days later, it issued its verdict.

The PolitiFact report noted that Halliburton's former subsidiary, KBR, which held one of the largest contracts assigned during the Iraq war (bagging about $31 billion), has repeatedly been questioned about its fulfillment of contracts. PolitiFact referred to a congressional investigation that found Halliburton had overcharged the government $167 million for its purchases of gasoline, and noted that a government audit had charged KBR with overcharging $4.5 million for meals it provided. PolitiFact also pointed out:
Government auditors have noted that KBR refused to turn over electronic data in its native format and stamped documents as proprietary and secret when the documents would normally be considered public records.
The group added:
Over the course of several years, the Defense Contract Audit Agency found that $553 million in payments should be disallowed to KBR, according to 2009 testimony by agency director April Stephenson before the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commissioner Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, said that amount represents a small portion of everything that auditors examined as potentially questionable.
The PolitiFact report further noted that the Justice Department is suing KBR for "knowingly including impermissible costs" in its bills to the U.S. government, and the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) director has estimated these bills could total $99 million or more.

But after outlining all this, PolitiFact pronounced Huffington's statement merely "Half True." What bugged PolitiFact was her use of the word "defrauded." It explained:
Some of the overbilling in Iraq appears to have been done from haste or inefficiency, or even in a desire to please military officials in the field without regard for cost. Whether the waste in contracting constitutes fraud is still being examined.
But PolitiFact also said:
In ruling on Huffington's statement, we find much in the public record to support her statement, most notably the Justice Department lawsuit. Certainly there have been hundreds of millions of dollars that Halliburton's KBR attempted to charge the government that have been denied.
Understandably, the "Half True" verdict did not go over well with Huffington. In a column, she fired back, characterizing PolitiFact's conclusion as "an object lesson in equivocation, and a prime exhibit of the kind of muddled thinking that dominates Washington and allows the powerful to escape accountability." She added:
This isn't to lump PolitiFact in with Liz Cheney, but its attempt to bend over backwards to find the comfort of the middle ground is part of the problem it was presumably formed to combat.
Huffington cited a DCAA audit that found KBR had filed more than $1.4 billion in questionable costs and $441 million in unsupported costs. She sarcastically poked at PolitiFact's assertion that there's "much evidence that makes us believe that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to waste and inefficiency, not deceitful fraud":
Really? "Hundreds of millions" lost due to "waste and inefficiency"? Sure, no program is perfect, but when "hundreds of millions of dollars" just disappear, they don't fall between the sofa cushions. And why is it that all of Halliburton/KBR's "inefficiency" somehow redounded to the company's benefit and not the government's? In any case, the best defense PolitiFact could muster is that Halliburton/KBR was only a little fraudulent, and simply hugely, massively, and spectacularly incompetent. Thus, my statement was adjudicated Half True.
I'm a fan of the HuffingtonPost and PolitiFact. But it did strike me that Huffington had done a good job depicting PolitiFact as wishy-washy in its evaluation of her slam on Halliburton. Days later, PolitiFact replied to her assault.

Bill Adair, the Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and editor of PolitiFact, insisted it was "silly to suggest we were seeking a safe 'middle ground.' In fact, two days after her column ran, Huffington Post published a piece by another writer complaining that we gave Democrats too many False ratings." He acknowledged that the "Half True" rating can be quite frustrating, explaining that it means a statement "is accurate but leaves out important details or take things out of context."

As for Huffington's specific charge about Halliburton and KBR, Adair noted that "hundreds of millions of dollars have been identified as wasteful and potentially fraudulent, but the lines are not clear." But was PolitiFact giving Halliburton and KBR too much benefit of the doubt? When a company files more than $1.5 billion in questionable or unsupported costs and half a billion dollars in bills are disallowed, what's going on? I'm reminded of another media phenomenon: how difficult it is for mainstream media journalists to declare a president has lied. (I cover that here.)

Adair has a countercase. But he ends up relying on a cliche, noting proudly that PolitiFact has been blasted by conservatives it has fact-checked and also by liberals, as if this means it's doing something right. He writes, "The lesson of these episodes and many others is that we have found one thing that conservatives and liberals agree on: They don't like it when independent news organizations hold them accountable for what they say."

I suppose no one does. So I hope Adair takes it well when I point out that PolitiFact did miss a big piece of this story. Readers can judge for themselves if Huffington was ill-advised or justified in using the word "defrauded" on the basis of all those investigations and findings. (I lean toward calling fraud "fraud.") But what is beyond dispute is that Liz Cheney was dead wrong. On "This Week," she said that Huffington's charge had "no relationship to the facts." Given that even the stingy vetters of PolitiFact concluded there is "much in the public record to support [Huffington's] statement," Cheney's denial deserves the Truth-O-Meter's "Pants on Fire" rating.

Yet PolitiFact didn't evaluate Cheney's remark. So here's the real problem: Huffington made a charge that was rooted in reality. Cheney responded with a statement that had no basis in reality. Yet PolitiFact zeroed in only on the former and let the real lie escape. True, Huffington had dared PolitiFact to review her remark. But Adair and his intrepid band were free to expand the mission. The greater public service would have been to compare Huffington's and Cheney's comments and determine who was closer to the truth. This is where PolitiFact truly fell short.

Having said that, I hope that this column survives any subsequent fact-checking -- and that both Huffington and PolitiFact continue to expose officials, candidates and pundits who flagrantly mug the truth to cover up the misdeeds and improbities of the powerful.

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20 Comments

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nokabosh

It may be news to some of you libs but Haliburton is the only contractor who bid that type of gov't contract. They have been trying to sell off that division for years but no takers. Costs are hard to pin down when the situation in a war zone is dynamic. Does anyone really belive they have accountants following the troops around? Overcharging or undercharging is likely. Proving fraud is another matter.

July 12 2010 at 11:54 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
cque8

Halliburton? What year is this? Like the majority of Americans I say we need to fix today's issues. I wish our politicians would get their acts together and do more for the American people and less for themselves, and their re-election bids. The feud between these two women...Mrs. Huffington does not like Cheney's daughter for the mere fact that she is his daughter. She may have some opinions that she shares with him, BUT SHE IS NOT HER FATHER.

July 12 2010 at 7:22 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
Jeff

Huffington should ditch the phony accent. She plain and simple is an ultra
liberal who hates America. There are no facts to this story only smear and
inunedo.

July 12 2010 at 5:38 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
tnickerson08

Arianne huffington? Now thats a reliable source, "half-truth" more like a half baked lie. Defrauded is a criminal term and therefore she should be sued for slander. Just because she is a member of the media they cover for her even when she is wrong. Shame on arrianna huffington and shae on the media for not calling her comments what they are SLANDER. Maybe instead of a "truth-o-meter" she should take her chances with a jury award and put her money where her mouth it?

July 12 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tnickerson08's comment
tanirocker

How is it slander when she is demonstrably correct? Halliburton DID rip off the US government, and therefore US taxpayers, by overcharging by hundreds of millions of dollars. Did you even read the article?

July 12 2010 at 5:11 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
rj2860

Liz Cheney's ONLY purpose in being on news programs is to defend her father's criminal record and help protect the empire (Haliburton) that funds the Cheney clan's existence. It is past time for the "hosts" of the news/talk shows to start calling people out on their lies and slanted opinions being stated as "facts" - I think Jake Tapper does, more or less, a better job than most on challenging opinions stated "fact-like" (actually not sure why he isn't the permanent host)....he also generally seems to walk the line and hold both sides feet to the fire on "fact-like" information.

Dick Cheney will be like Kissenger....traveling to few if any places outside the USA becasuse of fear of being arrested for war crimes.

July 12 2010 at 2:28 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to rj2860's comment
joe

Arrest Cheney for war crimes while a Republican is in the White House and you better have a BIG army.

July 12 2010 at 4:24 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Jeff

More slander of the former vice-President without facts. If you get your
facts from Jake Tapper, not exactly a household name.

July 12 2010 at 5:42 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
Blake

Right on... Its disgraceful that politiFact did not award a liar liar pants on fire to Liz Chaney

Who in this case does live on another planet, if she denies the obvious truths.

Blake Fleetwood

July 12 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
djh6721

Golden rule: Those with the gold make the rules. Whenever truth threatens.... blame those with no money and no power and make them the scapegoat. Halliburton gets caught with an ugly liver spotted claw in the cookie jar and gets little reaction but just watch the stink if some wino somewhere gets caught pinching 10 extra bucks in food stamps.

July 12 2010 at 1:10 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to djh6721's comment
jancf

I can't for the life of me figure out why so many people are willing to give the actions of Halliburton a free pass. Isn't there a lot of talk about morality bandied about? Are the halls of power and money so intimidating that they can be forgiven anything?

July 12 2010 at 9:53 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
bg7st7

Great summation...As always. Hopefully, Politifact will use this as a learning experience and instead of getting defensive, they will get better. That would better serve the people of this nation and prove that they are what they purport to be. I saw the show and heard the comments by all. I did not come away thinking Ms. Huffington lied and Ms. Cheney spoke the truth. We need to replace the word Government with American People in all public debate. Government has the connotation of being this vague entity, but American People does not. Bravo to Ms. Huffington. She checks her own facts pretty well. Ms. Cheney does not.

July 12 2010 at 1:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
bpdarling

Liz Cheney is an unreliable source for fact, ESPECIALLY when Halliburton is involved. She gets paid directly and indirectly from Halliburton and is not qualified to provide any commentary that is not steeped in half truths, and out right lies solely for the purpose of protecting the prior crimes committed by her father.

July 12 2010 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bpdarling's comment
joe

This reader insinuates that Cheney committed crimes and when I insinuate that members of congress commit crimes my post is rejected. I am testing you and your bias sticks out like a sore thumb.

July 12 2010 at 4:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Austin

Thank you! I saw that review of the comments and was extremely displeased that they zeroed in on Huffington and called her comments half-true even after building an extensive case that seemed to thoroughly prove them true. To give her a half-true rating just because they didn't like her phrasing was ludicrous, and equally ludicrous not to rip Cheney for saying Huffington was living on another planet.

They had another just like it last week when John McCain was on. He talked about crime rising in Mexico and insinuated it was spilling over into Arizona. Al Hunt pointed out that crime was actually down in Arizona. They rated that statement true, but didn't assess John McCain's statement because they couldn't be sure that Hunt had interpreted McCain's statement correctly. McCain deserved to be dissected if, for no other reason, to point out that his statement was fundamentally true but wildly misleading. They also didn't respond to McCain's repeated accusation that Obama's timeline for Afghanistan is a "date-certain" withdrawal, a statement easily disproven by the President taking great pains to say it's a conditions-based withdrawal. Why they seem to be okay nailing some people while letting others get away with such egregious mis-truths is beyond me.

July 12 2010 at 12:36 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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