Wednesday, December 14, 2011

PolitiFalse

I know I haven’t written on this thing for a while; but something has gotten me so steamed recently that I feel the need to express it publicly, and I’m frankly shocked no one else has bothered to talk about it.

Last week the Daily Show did one of their better bits in recent years on the War on Christmas. Peppering the usual outraged diatribe with fun-filled facts extracted from a History Channel Special, Jon and Co. asserted that the first Congress considered Christmas so un-sacred that they actually convened on Christmas Day in 1789, and for most of the 67 years after. You can watch the entire clip below:


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The problem? This supposed fact isn’t true (or is it?). A couple days later the so-called PolitiFact posted an article claiming this statement was so false, it was Pants-On-Fire worthy.

Normally, who gives a shit, right? I mean, it’s the Daily Show. They may win Emmys for the quality of their work, but no one is really turning to a comedy show for Congressional trivia…particularly when they’re only referencing trivia from a more reliable source, anyway.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If PolitiFact is right that Congress didn’t convene on Christmas Day in 1789, why does the History Channel (and multiple other sources) claim that they did?

This is a question no one appears to be asking. On Facebook there are hundreds of comments pointing out that the “lie” wasn’t Stewart’s; it was in fact the History Channel’s, since that was Jon’s source. But no one appears to be questioning whether it is PolitiFact that has its pants on fire.

I’m not a Congressional or Christmas scholar, so I’ll leave it to someone else to eventually determine whether PolitiFact is correct. But I find their reasoning questionable at best. The History Channel should be a relatively reliable source of historical information. Where did they go wrong?

To start, let’s look at PolitiFact’s sources. The first is a phone call to one Donald Ritchie, an historian of the U.S. Senate. Sounds like a good source, right? Don “had his doubts.” Translation: he didn’t actually know the fucking answer. Next.

PolitiFact then proceeded to “dig into the records.” This apparently consisted simply of going to the US Senate’s website to see the start and end dates of the 1789 Congressional session, and then extrapolating from those records. This was followed up by going to ANOTHER website to browse through the congressional journals from that year. I salute that they did some additional research, but this leaves a little bit to be desired before denouncing someone as a liar.

Juxtaposed against this is still the History Channel, who apparently no one ever bothered to call in order to determine from where they acquired their information. There is also the ACLU and numerous other websites (example) making the same proclamation that Congress met on 12.25.1789. Try it yourself!

Perhaps most significant is a quick search at books.google.com, which uncovers multiple published sources asserting Congress met on Christmas Day, 1789. If you are near a local library, maybe you could check out page 288 of The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States by Derek Davis.

Now, here’s a lesson on sources, children. The Senate government website is certainly one of the more reliable websites. But it’s a WEBSITE. Published books and documentaries tend to be written by qualified experts who have to go through a vetting process. When you have to choose between a website and the Oxford Handbook to Anything, you go with the Oxford Handbook.

This basic lesson is lost on some people. In my quest to unearth the truth of the first American Christmas I found this blog, which gleefully chortled “Congress had adjourned its session on September 29, 1789, and did not reconvene until January 4, 1790. That took one click on Wikipedia to confirm. But you know, why bother.” It took all my willpower not to observe that, granted that if you’re a conservative there’s only a 1-in-4 chance you are college educated (Pew Research!), you should still know better than to trust Wikipedia as a reliable font of information. Particularly in the face of more reliable sources.

Which brings us back to the PolitiFact article. Your research is interesting, young Padawan. But it’s hardly conclusive. Certainly not conclusive enough to denounce someone else as a liar.

So why does this matter? BECAUSE no one is questioning PolitiFact. Because they’re becoming guilty of the very thing they pretend to deride. In the conservative blog above one commenter asserts Jon is a liar because he had a willful disregard for the truth, reflexively regurgitating a “fact” without investigating its veracity. Aren’t you guilty of the same thing, trusting a PolitiFact article without questioning its reliability?

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