So who's going to fact-check PolitiFact?, cont'd

We really wish this wasn't a semi-occasional feature, because we generally admire their work. But from time to time the folks over at PolitiFact seem to have a hard time grasping simple facts. Last December they rushed to the defense of Karl Rove after he made a patently false claim about Obama's polling numbers. And this week PolitiFact botches the issue of whether Obama was accurate when he suggested in the SOTU that a recent SCOTUS ruling (i.e. United Citizen v. FEC) could open the doors to foreign campaign donations.

Here's what Obama said at the SOTU:

Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

It was at that point, of course, that Justice Samuel Alito was seen reacting to Obama's comments just feet away and mouthing “Not true”; a rather remarkable breach of protocol for a Justice. Alito's claim was then seized upon by the right-wing Noise Machine which announced unequivocally that Obama had “lied” about the United Citizen case.

Which means yeah, it's pretty important to figure out if Obama was accurate about the recent SCOTUS ruling. PolitiFact claims Obama's comments during the SOTU were “barely true.” But after reading the dubious analysis, its clear that what PolitiFact did was fact-check something Obama didn't say, which is never helpful.

Again, here's what Obama did say:

I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections.

But rather than dealing with that comment, which is based on what Obama thinks might be the ramifications from Citizens United, PolitiFact pretends Obama made some sort of sweeping, definitive legal claim.

Here's a key graph from PolitiFact. Just try to square the highlighted sections with the fact that it declared that Obama's SOTU comment was “barely true”:

Indeed, the legal experts we spoke to after Obama's radio address said that the president was overstating the immediate impact of the opinion. They said Obama was correct that the ruling could open the door to foreign companies spending on American campaigns, given the general direction of the majority's opinion.

Huh? Legal experts confirmed that Obama's point was accurate and that foreign companies could start spending money on U.S. elections, but PolitiFact determined that Obama's point was “barely true?” That, of course, makes no sense.

Here's where PolitiFact claims Obama messed up:

But because the majority justices didn't actually strike down the existing barriers on foreign companies -- in fact, they explicitly wrote that it fell beyond the boundaries of their decision -- our experts agreed that Obama erred by suggesting that the issue is settled law. Until test cases proceed and further rulings are handed down, Obama's claim about foreign campaign spending is a reasonable interpretation, and nothing more.

Are you serious? The SCOTUS just issued a ruling. Obama expressed his concern -- his opinion -- that the ruling would open the door to foreign corporation campaign donations. But PolitiFact insisted Obama's claim was “barely true” because Obama suggested “the issue is settled law.” Um, where exactly did Obama make that suggestion? Because he certainly didn't make that suggestion in the SOTU, which is what PolitiFact is supposed to be fact-checking.

In other words, PolitiFact is scolding Obama for something he didn't say.

And here's the part where PolitiFact quotes legal scholars -- scholars who do nothing to back up the “barely true” claim:

“Some people think that Kennedy's opinion in Citizens United logically leads there,” said Robert Kelner, who chairs the election and political law practice group at the law firm Covington & Burling. “Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. We don't know for sure.”

Brett Kappel, a political law specialist with the law firm Arent Fox, said the Citizens United opinion “certainly could be read as declaring this provision unconstitutional, so I'd have to say the president's interpretation is correct -- but we won't really know for sure until a court rules on the issue.”

Are you following? Obama said he “believes” the ruling will allow foreign corporations to spend on U.S. elections. And guess what? So do lots of legal scholars. But because the one-week old case hasn't been tested in court and because it's not settled law, PolitiFact claims Obama oversold the point. (It's “barely true!”) Even though, all Obama did was say what he “believes” might happen.

This is really just weak stuff for a fact-checking org.

UPDATED: From blogger and respected constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald:

While the factual claims Obama made about the ruling are subject to reasonable dispute, they're well within the realm of acceptable political rhetoric and are far from being “false” (e.g., though the ruling did not strike down the exact provision banning foreign corporations from electioneering speech, its rationale could plausibly lead to that; moreover, it's certainly fair to argue, as Obama did, that the Court majority tossed aside a century of judicial precedent).