The fact-checking website PolitiFact again came under fire for alleged political bias Wednesday after it posted a bizarre article that refused to rule on whether Michael Brown was in fact "murdered" by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, as Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren falsely claimed last week.
In the article, headlined "The death of Michael Brown, legal facts and Democratic messaging," PolitiFact correspondent Louis Jacobson acknowledged issues with Harris and Warren's language, noting that a state grand jury had found Wilson's use of force to be justifiable.
Jacobson also observed that the Obama administration's Justice Department separately cleared Wilson of federal civil rights violations, saying “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.” The Obama DOJ additionally concluded that "sufficient credible evidence supports Wilson's claim that he reasonably perceived Brown to be posing a deadly threat."
"In discussing the case with legal experts ... we found broad consensus that 'murder' was the wrong word to use," Jacobson acknowledged in the PolitiFact analysis.
Nevertheless, Jacobson wrote that "because the significance of Harris’ and Warrens’ use of the word is open to some dispute, we won’t be rating their tweets on the Truth-O-Meter. ... Experts who have studied police-related deaths and race relations said that focusing too much on the linguistics in controversial cases comes with its own set of problems."
Jacobson quoted Jean Brown, a communications professor who focuses on "media representations of African Americans," as saying that the entire question of whether Warren and Harris spread a falsehood was nothing more than an "attempt to shift the debate from a discussion about the killing of black and brown people by police."
Brown's killing launched the international "Black Lives Matter" movement, even though initial claims that Brown was surrendering with his hands raised – saying, "Hands up, don't shoot" – proved unsubstantiated.
Reached for comment Thursday by Fox News, PolitiFact's editor, Angie Holan, pointed out that the website routinely refuses to rate the truth or falsity of certain claims, depending on the context. "Despite Trump remarks on El Paso and Dayton, it's a weak link between video games, mass shootings," read one of those recent articles; others included, "Donald Trump said he's done more for African Americans than any president. Historians disagree," and "Donald Trump says he spent a lot time with 9/11 responders. Here are the facts."
Those articles explicitly refused to rate the claims in question because they were "vague," or constituted an "opinion" -- not because they were distracting from a particular narrative.
"We didn't rate it because the wording was open to dispute," Holan said. "Another way to say that is the wording is open to interpretation."
Holan noted that one expert cited by the fact-checker said "murder" could possibly be taken informally or hyperbolically. PolitiFact's stated policies are that the "burden of proof is on the speaker."
Other fact-checking websites had no compunctions about labeling Harris and Warren's claims inaccurate. “Harris, Warren Wrong About Brown Shooting,” read a headline Monday from the non-profit website factcheck.org. Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler on Monday also awarded both senators "Four Pinocchios" over their claims.
Commentators, meanwhile, argued that Wednesday's episode was just the latest apparent attempt by PolitiFact to cover for Democratic politicians.
"This has nothing to do with whether it’s *factual* to say Michael Brown was murdered, and everything to do with whether it furthers a social cause to call out people who say so," wrote Alex Griswold, a reporter at The Washington Free Beacon. "Why the hell is this in a fact check?"
Griswold added: "A reminder that Politifact dinged a GOP Rep because he referred to abortion as a form of death, and they ruled that it isn’t, because the CDC says so. That settles it!"
"Guys if you say that Hillary murdered Epstein, Politifact is powerless to fact-check you," Griswold wrote later.
David Rutz, the Free Beacon's managing editor, pointed out that late last month, PolitiFact tweeted that Warren has been rated 17 times by the website, "with no rating below Half True."
"I guess they didn't want to break up Warren's record pace," Rutz wrote.
"I've been on to you guys for more than a decade, yet you still manage to surprise me with your dishonesty," The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto said on Twitter, referring to PolitiFact.
Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume wrote: "In which @Politifact twists itself in knots so as not to acknowledge the obvious falsity of Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris’s claim that Michael Brown was “murdered” in Ferguson, Mo. It’s almost a parody."
“What are words anyway beyond a bunch of round and angled shapes?” - PolitiFact," added commentator Stephen Miller.
Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist and Fox News contributor, said that sites like PolitiFact have functioned as political operatives for more than a decade.
"If people keep forgetting ... and think each pretend 'fact' 'check' is the first bad one, they get to continue operating as if they're not a joke. Forever," Hemingway wrote.
The episode was just the latest apparent instance of political bias at PolitiFact. In July, Holan told Fox News she was standing by an article supposedly debunking claims that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had posed for a photo-op crying outside an "empty parking lot" last year, despite online mockery.
PolitiFact had announced that it was unequivocally "false" to claim the freshman lawmaker was crying in front of an "empty parking lot." Instead, the site insisted, Ocasio-Cortez was standing in front of a mostly empty road leading to a detention facility.
Their approach didn't pass muster among commentators, who said the site had missed the point intentionally, for the sake of issuing a "false" rating that would help bury stories unfavorable to Ocasio-Cortez about the episode.
"Is PolitiFact on AOC's payroll yet?" asked conservative political strategist Caleb Hull.
Wrote humorist Frank Fleming: "'Ha! AOC was crying over a parking lot!'" POLITIFACT: 'False, haters, we checked a satellite image and it was an empty road.' I might be paraphrasing @jamestaranto, but fact checks are like editorials but dumber."
Holan told Fox News at the time she was not concerned that the blowback would impair PolitiFact's appearance of impartiality. The website is one of several fact-checkers used by Facebook to examine social media posts before users can view them.
Facebook users who attempt to access articles flagged by sites like PolitiFact as "false" must first view and disregard a warning from Facebook about the article's content. The warnings can often discourage users from clicking on content, without making clear the precise nature of the fact-checker's objection.
"We work hard to present accurate, authoritative information to readers of all political opinions and viewpoints," Holan said. "Readers may sometimes disagree with a specific rating or report, but they gain knowledge from the report itself, and they understand that over the long term our mission is guided by editorial independence."