A good rule of thumb is that if you are going to say that you are a fact checker, you better actually check the facts. Apparently this standard was not applied when the VT Digger via Politifact fact checked Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne’s statement on the factual reality of the proposed Vermont abortion legislation (which I recently broke down in a Facebook Live video if you are interested). Apparently fact checking doesn’t matter to them.
Bishop Coyne said according to the article, “We’re talking about a law that would allow a child to be aborted right up to the moment of birth.” He purportedly said this in a public meeting in Rutland on February 6. I wasn’t there, but I am going to assume that this is an accurate statement. It seems in character with the Bishop’s position on abortion as far as I understand it.
Journalist Colin Meyn does all he can to avoid admitting that the Bishop is right, including rating this statement as Mostly False. However, in his conclusion, look at what he says:
First of all, what does it even mean for a simple factual statement to be Mostly False? If he is right, his statement is true. If he was wrong then his statement is false. It is not likely presented five facts here, and four out of five of them were wrong. Perhaps then you could say that his statement was Mostly False. However, with only one fact as far as I can tell on the table, there really is no room for this kind of linguistic gymnastics.
Second, Meyn admits that Coyne’s statement is true in a “strict legal sense.” What else could he possibly be implying? Read his original quote again. He is saying that this proposed law, H. 57, will most likely become a law, and once it presumably does, that law will allow abortion right up to birth.
The bishop is making a statement about the legal sense of this law, and he is right. He is not talking about the impact of alternative policies or even practice in Vermont as Meyn tries to irrelevantly qualify. Coyne is saying that by the philosophical principle of law itself, this bill would allow abortion right up until birth. Meyn himself acknowledges that Coyne is right in the legal sense that Coyne is using the term. He is outlining the legal situation, and even according to the fact checker who says his statement is Mostly False, he is saying something true in the legal sense. What kind of doublespeak is this?
For the purposes of complete transparency, I regularly read VT Digger. I often times find their articles interesting, thought-provoking, and informative. I am not some kind of ranting opponent who hates this publication. I like it. However, you have to expect more than this out of any media outlet, especially in this cultural moment when people do not trust the media. It is situations exactly like this that cause that cause people to doubt.
Within the same article, he led with the headline that says that the Bishop was wrong, but by the end of the article, we find out that he was exactly right in the context that he was speaking by the same author’s own admission. Remarkable to say the least.
The rest of the article in between speaks about how few late-term abortions actually happened in Vermont. That information is interesting, but it is just a diversion. Coyne made absolutely no reference to the frequency of elective, late-term abortions. He did not argue that this bill would change the legal environment in any way as some commenters on the original article tried to claim he did. He did not even say that late-term abortion was illegal in Vermont right now which the article goes to great lengths to discuss. He didn’t say it was or wasn’t. He is simply saying that this law would codify in state law the right to have an abortion right up until birth. And, he is right.
If you are going to fact check something, please at least do so responsibly. Perhaps there is an interesting story to be told that abortion opponents in Vermont are making a big deal out of nothing because there is no physician in Vermont that would perform a late-term abortion anyway. Perhaps there is an interesting story in the fact that Vermont apparently does not even have a restriction on late-term abortion right now codified on the books. Those are stories that can be told, and I think they are still misguided and wrong, but they are at least within the realm of responsible journalism. At least they can be argued without misrepresenting a statement that Coyne never said in the sense Meyn took it. Don’t use Coyne’s quote out of context as an opportunity to argue against a strawman that was irresponsibly created out of his statement.
To call something Mostly False, then to provide a lot of irrelevant evidence that doesn’t at all connect to the statement that Bishop Christopher Coyne said, and finally to admit at the end his statement is true in the “strict legal sense,” which is exactly the context he was discussing this issue in, is blatantly partisan journalism and commentary. That is not what fact checking is for. It is not commentary.
In fact, I would have to rate this entire fact check “False” itself for disregarding context and not presenting an untrue picture of the Bishop’s statement.
I have not seen a response from VT Digger, but their fact check was written in conjunction with Politifact. Even if that was its origin point though, the website should take ownership for the content it publishes and either clarify or retract blatantly misleading statements. In fact, that is what I would call on VT Digger to do immediately.
The other day on our Facebook page, I shared a quote that I did not realize had been mistakenly attributed. It was something I thought was from Alexis de Tocqueville, but it has apparently been misattributed to him. I removed that image as soon as I was aware of it because truth matters and honesty matters. I didn’t want to be leave up something even as insignificant as a graphic on social media that had inaccurate information on it. Wouldn’t it be great if other outlets would do the same? If I’m wrong here, then let’s talk about it, and I am happy to clarify or retract if my fact check is wrong.