PolitiFact Ohio still cited as objective despite questions of bias

Jason Hart | Contributor

PolitiFact Ohio — the “fact-checking” wing of the Cleveland Plain Dealer — has been cited as an authority by all six of Ohio’s major papers, but now faces proof of staffers’ liberal bias. And even after the outlet’s claim to objectivity was debunked in an Aug. 16 report from conservative watchdog Media Trackers Ohio, the Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch and the Dayton Daily News continue treating PolitiFact Ohio as an objective source.

The criticisms launched by Media Trackers Ohio include far-left statements by PolitiFact Ohio writer Tom Feran, who writes “fact checks” of conservative politicians for PolitiFact Ohio while calling conservatives “yahoos” and “wingnuts” on his personal Twitter account.

Besides cheerleading for President Barack Obama and writing “This says it all!” with a link to a blog post titled “The Cancer of Conservatism,” Feran also once compared “auto racing on Memorial Day weekend during the Deepwater [oil] catastrophe” to “commemorating Kristalnacht with a barbecue.” During the 1938 Kristallnacht riots, Nazis in Austria and Germany killed nearly 100 Jews, imprisoned tens of thousands more, and burned thousands of Jewish synagogues and businesses.

Media Trackers also reported that, based on voter registration records, PolitiFact Ohio editors Robert Higgs and Jane Kahoun are both Democrats. Prominent PolitiFact Ohio contributors Feran, Henry Gomez, Aaron Marshall and Reginald Fields are registered Democrats as well, but this has not prompted any skepticism at the state’s major newspapers.

Matt Mayer, founder of conservative think tank Opportunity Ohio and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, expressed no surprise that reporters are ignoring PolitiFact Ohio’s conflicts of interest, just as they routinely overlooked studies from the free-market Buckeye Institute during his tenure as president. In his book Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance, Mayer described an Ohio media populated with “JINOs” — Journalists In Name Only.

In an Aug. 19 editorial slamming Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Joe Hallett at The Columbus Dispatch called PolitiFact Ohio “The Plain Dealer’s respected campaign truth-o-meter.” This spring, Hallett contributed to a news story using PolitiFact Ohio rulings as evidence that Mandel’s campaign was off to a “rocky start.”

An Akron Beacon-Journal editorial published June 18 stated, “Mandel has hurled wild accusations against [Sen. Sherrod] Brown, many deemed ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’ by PolitiFact.” In an Aug. 8 Beacon-Journal editorial, Steve Hoffman wrote that Mandel “has had so many ‘pants on fire’ ratings from PolitiFact that he must wear asbestos underwear.”

Nowhere is a conflict of interest with the Plain Dealer’s stable of left-wing researchers, writers and editors more striking than in coverage of the current Senate race: Josh Mandel faces a Democrat incumbent whose wife was a Plain Dealer columnist until 2011, when she resigned after she was caught filming Mandel at a tea party event.

Of all Mandel’s statements judged by PolitiFact Ohio, three have been ruled “True” and six have been ruled “Pants on Fire.” Meanwhile, PolitiFact Ohio has ruled nine of incumbent Sherrod Brown’s statements “True” and only one “Pants on Fire.”

For detailed critiques of individual PolitiFact Ohio columns, see the Ohio Watchdog series “PolitiFact or Fiction.”

Henry Gomez began a March story titled, “Even in an age of fact checking, the whopper lives,” by charging that “Josh Mandel’s already casual relationship with the truth took a turn toward outright estrangement this month.”

In a July 29 PolitiFact Ohio story celebrating PolitiFact Ohio’s two-year anniversary, Tom Feran reported that a total of 36 statements had been ruled “Pants on Fire” since launch. Feran didn’t note that liberal journalists had slapped Josh Mandel with nearly 14 percent of all the state’s “Pants on Fire” rulings, with the two most-recent written and researched by Feran himself.

After assigning Mandel the “Pants on Fire crown” in a separate July 29 piece printed in the Plain Dealer, Tom Feran gave Mandel another “Pants on Fire” ruling two weeks later. Interestingly, PolitiFact Ohio has heaped “Pants on Fire” rulings onto Mandel at an increasing rate as polls show Mandel’s prospects improving.

Media Trackers reported on August 16 that Feran gave Mandel three “Pants on Fire” rulings in the two months from mid-June to mid-August. That’s three times as many “Pants on Fire” rulings as Brown has received in two years, and one more “Pants on Fire” than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been given by PolitiFact in five years.

On Sept. 2, Ted Diadiun responded to a Plain Dealer reader complaint that PolitiFact Ohio’s trademark “Truth-O-Meter” flagged far more Republican than Democrat statements as untrue. “The PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter is an arbitrary rating that has the often impossible job of summing up an arduously reported, complicated and nuanced issue in one or two words,” Diadiun explained. “Ignore it,” Diadiun continued. “Read the story, and you will have enough facts to draw your own conclusions.”

Feran did not respond to a request for comment, but removed references to the Plain Dealer and PolitiFact Ohio from his Twitter account days after being contacted by Media Trackers. Though editor Robert Higgs confirmed that the @TomFeran account on Twitter is owned by his employee, he did not respond to additional questions.

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