Fact-Checking PolitiFact

PolitiFact.com, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, is a self-proclaimed fact checking operation. I know this won’t surprise anyone, given that it’s affiliated with the “mainstream” media, but it has a decidedly leftward bias. A quick look at past columns shows that it has a preference for “fact checking” statements made by people who lean right. Not surprisingly, it tends to deem their statements as untrue, and when it “fact checks” statements of those who lean left, it tends to deem their statements as true. This is highly subjective stuff, laden with cherry-picking.

Also not surprisingly, PolitiFact leaves out crucial facts in its reporting (mistakenly, or dare I ask, deliberately?), prompting it to give erroneous assessments. A case in point: when it attempted to evaluate whether something that commentator Reza Aslan said was true. Azlan responded to an insinuation made by comedian and commentator Bill Maher that female genital mutilation is an Islamic problem. Azlan said that it’s actually “a central African problem.”

Who was right – Maher, or Azlan?

PolitiFact deputy editor Katie Sanders claimed that “Azlan’s larger point – that this is not a problem in only Muslim countries – is valid. Countries with majority-Christian populations also carry out this practice, while Islamic-majority countries like Iraq and Yemen have rates on the lower side. We rate Aslan’s claim Mostly True.”

In her research, did Ms. Sanders not come across the report, “FGM in Ethiopia”? It’s one of the first things that comes up when one does a Google search using the keywords “female genital mutilation Muslim Christian Ethiopia.”

The report states:

“FGM is practiced by both of the main religions in Ethiopia – Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Muslim groups are more likely to practice FGM than Christian groups, with the prevalence among Muslim communities being 65.1% and that among Orthodox Christians being 45%. The prevalence of FGM among Muslims is not only higher but is also changing more slowly.”

That’s a crucial point, indicating that while FGM exists among both Muslim and Christian populations in Africa, it’s more common among Muslim populations. This means that within countries where FGM is practiced, there could be something about the Muslim religion that either encourages the practice, or that prompts people to tolerate it to a greater extent. (Or, there could be something about the Muslim religion that causes economic development to occur more slowly compared with areas where other religions predominate, resulting in more widespread practice of primitive and repulsive customs such as FGM.)

Maher only implied that FGM is an Islamic problem, and didn’t directly characterize it as exclusively an Islamic problem. As FGM is more common among Muslim populations, Maher’s claim was mostly true. Hence Aslan’s claim was mostly untrue. So PolitiFact was mostly wrong.