Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 21, 2011

WHEN POLITIFACT BECOMES POLITIFALSE.... Independent fact-checking outlets play an important part of the political discourse, or at least have the potential to. With a lot of figures making all kinds of claims, voters should have reliable sources they can turn to in order to help separate fact from fiction. Ideally, this would even create an incentive for more honesty -- politicians might be less likely to lie if they knew there was a price to getting caught.

All of this breaks down when the independent fact-checking outlets are themselves wrong.

A couple of days ago, we discussed the new ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), featuring seniors forced to tackle jobs they wouldn't otherwise do -- selling lemonade, mowing lawns, and stripping -- in order to have money for their health care. The spot is funny, but the message is serious: "Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care ... because Republicans voted to end Medicare."

PolitiFact, ostensibly one of the more trustworthy fact-checkers, argues that the DCCC's claim isn't just wrong, it's "pants on fire" wrong -- the worst designation the outlet can make, pointing to deliberate and flagrant dishonesty.

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program's budget would increase every year.

The report added that the PolitiFact fact-checkers would have been happier if the DCCC said Republicans had voted to end Medicare "as we know it." The qualifier makes it true; the absence of the qualifier, apparently, makes it pants-on-fire false.

This is analysis is deeply flawed. PolitiFact has to know better.

Medicare is a single-payer health care system offering guaranteed benefits to seniors. The House Republican budget plan intends to do away with the existing system and replace it with something very different -- a privatized voucher plan. It would still be called "Medicare," but it wouldn't be Medicare.

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word "end," but if there's a program, and it's replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That's what the verb means.

As for PolitiFact's claim that funding for the new "Medicare" vouchers "would increase," that's true, but it's also misleading -- the value of the voucher wouldn't keep up with escalating health care costs, creating new financial burdens on the elderly. It's the one of the keys to understanding the whole controversy.

And that's just the most glaring flaw in the PolitiFact report. It also offers misleading analysis related to CBO data and makes dubious complaints about when the new GOP-imposed burdens will apply to the elderly.

The DCCC's ad is accurate. It puts a little partisan spin on its message, but characterizing the spot as egregiously dishonest is absurd.

When an outlet puts "fact" in its name, the standards are especially high. In this case, PolitiFact fell far short.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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We also have a public education system in this country. The GOP doesn't want to end it. They just want to fire all the teachers, close all the schools, and give everyone a copy of the bible.

You don't even have to read the bible - They will tell you what it says, and means.

It's still "education"

Posted by: bignose on April 21, 2011 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for pointing that out. I hope Politifact pays attention to this blog and issues a correction. If they don't, I hope Maddow calls them out.

I still think that ad is horribly stupid, though.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on April 21, 2011 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

These are the same bunch of political Pollyannas who have been tsk-tsking actual politics since it was determined someone was actually going to have to shoot an Englishman to found the country.

If there really are Chardonnay-sipping, brie-eating Volvo drivers out there involved in politics, these idiots are those people.

Posted by: TCinLA on April 21, 2011 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

The statement that "the value of the voucher wouldn't keep up with escalating health care costs, creating new financial burdens on the elderly" is key to the Republican plan. Otherwise it doesn't save the government any money.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 21, 2011 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

The core problem here is that shortly republicans will use the politifacts "pants on fire' designation as a defense to the claim that they are killing Medicare.

Posted by: Stuart Shiffman on April 21, 2011 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Politifact is kind of like a ratings agency, no?

Hmmmm, maybe like S & P and Moody's, it's been bought!

I'm kidding.

But this smacks a little of the 'both sides take things to extreme's.'
And maybe they think they need to even out some of the whoppers that Republicans like Kyl have been spreading for years.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on April 21, 2011 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

In this case, either the Republican plan ends Medicare or it doesn't. It does. If your pet dies, and you replace it with another with the same name, the first pet is still dead.

Rachel Maddow also had to correct PolitiFact on an issue after they, incorrectly, accused her of misleading her audience. I remember her saying something to the effect that "just because you have the word 'Fact' in your name, doesn't turn your mistakes into truth."

Posted by: Chris on April 21, 2011 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Anybody with any sense has been ignoring Politifart all along. It's a typically brain-dead artifact of our ignorant, pompous nooze media.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on April 21, 2011 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

They have to issue a few pants on fire ratings to Democrats so they won't be called "biased". Unfortunately one side regularly traffics in "pants on fire" falsehoods and the other doesn't, so Politifact has to stretch to issue one. It's like when the president says something and he's off by 2% they give him a false rating, but if a Republican says something and it's based on a grain of truth but twisted into unrecognizable knots, they give him a "barely true" rating

Posted by: atlliberal on April 21, 2011 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

I warned you this was coming two days ago. Fair or not, these guys are the official arbiter of campaign language and Democrats better learn to play by their rules. Four words, "as we know it," constitute an eternity in a world of thirty second spots. But since the media can't use the "L" word unless someone else does, they jump at the chance when it's given to them. There's a chance this one slip up will take the Medicare issue off the table for the remainder of the campaign since all Republicans have to say is, "Democrats, who lied about ending Medicare....etc. etc.

Posted by: Art Hackett on April 21, 2011 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

It's M.O. all the way! Newt Gingrich ended the Republican Party shortly after Bill Clinton was elected. There are still a bunch of doughy honkeys in bad suits calling themselves Republicans, but the "party" now is really just a bunch of con men bilking right-to-lifers, Birchers, rich white people, and the Koch brothers out of "campaign contributions." In other words, the neutron bomb effect.

Posted by: ManOutOfTime on April 21, 2011 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

This is awesome. So you can radically convert any program into an entirely different system, but as long as you call it the same thing, it has not
"ended." It has "ended as we know it" but it has not "ended." Orwellian.

Posted by: Sam on April 21, 2011 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

You know when I saw the ad I thought it was funny, but I agree with Politfact that the ad is misleading. Including the 4 words would have been very helpful. It might not be pants on fire misleading but it is easy to knock down.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 21, 2011 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

I seem to recall PolitiFact being off the rails on Social Security privatization as well. Ordinarily, I think they stick pretty close to the facts, but there are a couple of areas where they totally fall for the conservative line - usually on entitlement spending.

Posted by: Dan Radmacher on April 21, 2011 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

You know what we don't need? An organization that is based on the false equivalency narrative in American politics given some "objective referee" reverence. What did the pants on fire trolls do after Citizens United? Where were they in warning the American people of the dangers of corporate propaganda? They are completely and utterly full of shit. I guarantee you that you cannot even invite a Republican over for coffee without having to shout over them before the cup gets cold. Politifact is so interested in maintaining its "neutral" status in a political world of GOP lies, that it has become a joke.

Ask not for whom the pants burn, hypocrites, they burn on thee.

Posted by: Sparko on April 21, 2011 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

In the middle of the 17th century, the last dodo was killed. Fortunately, Persnickety J. Tightass, whose direct lineal descendants would go on to found PoitiFact, noticed that the dodo is related to pigeons and doves. Thus, while the dodo may be extinct as we know it, the Tightasses at PolitiFact point out that, in some respect at least, the dodo is still with us.

Kudos to you, PolitiFact!

Posted by: Newton Whale on April 21, 2011 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Wait - you mean PolitiFact didn't repeat the talking point that the Ryan plan SAVES Medicare?

Buncha liberals ...

Posted by: Rick Massimo on April 21, 2011 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to help you find the truth in politics -- as per their web-site. St. Petersburg Times (as in St. Petersburg, Florida) -- Florida has been trying to change their image (as a Senior Citizen haven) for some time. Just another unwelcome sign.

Posted by: Ray Waldren on April 21, 2011 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

@bignose, that's the comparison I was looking for.

If a budget shuttered publicly funded schools and replaced them with vouchers for private schools, which were indexed to inflation rather than skyrocketing education costs, and did not require those private schools to accept the new students or set tuition at affordable rates, we would be very justified in declaring that said budget ended public education -- not just 'public education as we know it.'

Posted by: the_dan on April 21, 2011 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Cool. My plan is to replace our soldiers with florists. But we'll still call it the "military". And Politifact *must* agree that I haven't actually eliminated the military.

Posted by: Politifact Hater on April 21, 2011 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Also agree with hells littlest angel that the ads are really stupid. Not only corny, but also tone deaf and very ill-matched to the gravity of the issue. It's really dumb to treat the dismantling of our most bedrock social insurance program as a laughing matter.

Posted by: the_dan on April 21, 2011 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Sasha on April 21, 2011 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

If you ask me, Politifact is picking nits, and you are picking nits at Politifact's nit-picking. It's an ad, the object of which is to attract attention. It does that. Does it "end" Medicare? Well, the government coined the term "Medicare" and tied it to their program of guaranteed health care for senior citizens. They have the right to change the plan and continue to call it whatever they want. So, not really. However, after stating that the GOP's plan "ends Medicare," the ad goes on to explain what they mean by their statement. So they not really lying, much less "pants on fire" lying. It's such a minor point that it really hardly bears discussion.

Politifact also explains their reasoning behind their rating, so anyone who bothers to listen to the entire ad and read the entire Politifact article will be free to make up their own mind as to whether or not the ad is misleading. Anyone who doesn't do one or both either doesn't care or has already made up their mind. So, again, hardly worth discussion.

Sorry, but I can't get worked up over this one.

Posted by: Mike on April 21, 2011 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Politifact has to keep up its "both sides do it" schtick, so it ends up just being a hard-right disinformation site.

Posted by: Michael on April 21, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I keep hearing about how the Ryan plan will cost seniors more money as it shoves the burden of covering most of the future increases in health care costs onto the individual, which is all true of course, but seems to be largely irrelevant in light of the questions I haven't seen any answers to. What protections will come with the Ryan plan? Will insurance companies now have to take all comers 65 years and older and provide them with insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions? Will subscribers be subject to recission for harmless errors in their applications, years after the fact, just because they suddenly have a serious condition that requires expensive treatment? Will there be lifetime caps on benefits? In other words, will seniors lose Medicare and be thrown into a system like our private, individual policy, insurance system as it existed before ACA?

I really can't imagine that insurance companies would be too happy about being required to provide Medicare level service to all comers of the most expensive subscriber population there is, without someway to avoid the most costly subscribers, or some way of getting rid of them before their health care costs eat up all the profits.

And I certainly can't believe that the GOP would implement any policy that would make the insurance industry unhappy. So, what gives here? What am I missing?

Posted by: majun on April 21, 2011 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

So if I fire all the policemen and replace them with thugs and gangsters and call them the police I haven't ended law enforcement. Run that by me again????

Posted by: Timothy S Boyd on April 21, 2011 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Check Politifact's funding going back six months and going forward to 2013. You will find the root cause of this paricular mistake. "Mistakes" this glaring and one sided, aren't accidental.

Posted by: robert on April 21, 2011 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Politi-fact is a ploy of the Right, and not to be trusted. Hell, it's from uber-red Florida!!

Posted by: Styve on April 21, 2011 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK


The questions you asked are the very reason Medicare was created in the first place and why Ryan's budget is so radical. There is no guarantee they will find even one insurance company willing to insure those over 65 let alone people like my father who at 72 has had many health issues over the years( Including heart problems colon cancer, diabetes and cysts). It's simply insane. (or evil.) I'll let you decide.

Posted by: atlliberal on April 21, 2011 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Politfacts is correct to point out the lies emanating from the democrat party!

Medicare will still be Medicare, even if it no longer has any resemblance to current Medicare. Why, because we changed the definition of Medicare!

In the future, we of the wealthy class of republicans intend to change the definition of Freedom to that of what is now defined as indentured servants. That way, we can truthfully tell the Amerikan Sheeple that the working class of America still has Freedom.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on April 21, 2011 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

By Politifact's logic, it would have been a "lie" to say Republicans were proposing the end of Medicare if their plan was to give seniors vouchers they could use to pay part of the cost of having private enterprise poison them and process them into tasty green snack crackers, as long as it was still called "Medicare."

Posted by: Another Steve on April 21, 2011 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

politicafact was called out as biased last year...It is another scam from the right! To be ignored!

Posted by: jtl on April 21, 2011 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

And if I kill my wife and replace her with a blow-up doll, she's not really dead, is she?

Posted by: hells littlest angel on April 21, 2011 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

They did the same thing to Bill Maher's quote saying that when seniors run out of their $15,000 they will not get anymore money from the government for health care. They essentially twisted his words saying that $15,000 is a spending limit imposed on seniors. Either Politifact is stupid or has an agenda. Take a look on their home page for a link.

Posted by: Terska on April 21, 2011 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

If I'm wrong, then never mind!

As an entitlement, Medicare is a "defined" benefit. The GOP wants to change this status to a privitized voucher system!

As such, Politifact is the one with its pants on fire as this mere change will indeed end Medicare and replace it with an inferior, "Undefined" benefit where the gap between what the senior qualifies for and the actual costs of his medical needs will grow larger each open-enrollment period (once a year)! Under a "defined" benefit, the gap would not be as large because in the definition, a formula to adjust for inflation and cost of living can be added on during the duration of the entitlement.

The voucher, on the other hand is only worth the same as it was the first time it was awarded!

Politifact needs to reconcile this before it does anything else, otherwise some of us my grow to distrust its future analyses! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on April 21, 2011 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I'm liking this -- I can off my annoying Linda Richman-like neighbor and her purse-dog and replace them with a pool table and a Weimaraner in my newly-expanded living space and they're not dead, so I don't get in trouble with the law or the co-op board? Awesome!

Posted by: Realist on April 21, 2011 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

If I give you a big steaming pile of horse manure and I tell you it's a cherry pie, is it, in fact, a cherry pie?

Posted by: redactor on April 21, 2011 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

@Timothy Boyd: "So if I fire all the policemen and replace them with thugs and gangsters and call them the police I haven't ended law enforcement."

You know, there may actually be considerable gray area in that analogy.

Posted by: Weldon Berger on April 21, 2011 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

This is like when they said W Bush didn't 'ban' stem-cell research - no, he only required any place getting government funds (nearly all) to stop studying it.

Which is a defacto ban.


Stopping Medicare from being a single-payer system to vouchers? That's stopping 99% of Medicare actions - nearly every job at administering Medicare, would be eliminated.

That's kinda alot almost completely like ending it.

Sorta like if you fired all the bus drivers and sold all the busses and then gave a few dollars to the passengers for a taxi - that would be eliminating mass transit.

Posted by: Crissa on April 21, 2011 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

Jonathan Chait does a detailed takedown of Politifact's essay. I hope Politifact at least links to Chait's piece

Posted by: amorphous on April 21, 2011 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

The ignorant children at politifact apparently have no educated adult supervision. The discipline of General Semantics carefully described this situation (see "Language in thought and Action" by S.I. Hiakawa.)

Words are symbols for reality. Frequently the reality pointed to by a word changes, but in fact the words used to label that reality does not change along with it. The discipline of semiotics will say much the same.

This is simply a word game of the kind that delights propagandists. Only it's politifact that is playing the propagandist.

Adult supervision at Politifact is needed. Or disbanding. One or the other.

Posted by: Rick B on April 21, 2011 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, here's the Chait link: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/87146/politifact-goes-the-deep-end

Posted by: amorphous on April 21, 2011 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Its pretty funny seeing a progressive like Benen who makes a living off of spinning progressive talking points as "facts" trying to criticize Politifact for doing their job.

Posted by: Tom R on April 21, 2011 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a good one from Jed Lewison at dailykos.

According to their logic, if the FBI were replaced with a voucher program wherein citizens would receive subsidies for hiring private investigators to look into criminal activity, but the agency running the voucher program were still called the FBI, it would be unfair to say that the FBI had been ended.

Posted by: Sam on April 21, 2011 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

Steve reports the facts and is exposing politifacts for not doing their job..it's not funny when they get it wrong.

Posted by: Cha on April 21, 2011 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

Hey TCinLA - I drive a Volvo! But I do not drink white wine - that's for the Brie eaters! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on April 21, 2011 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

Uh oh. The proletariat's gettin' pissy with the Stalingrad Times (but only if the determinations don't flatter The Party).

Posted by: TGC on April 21, 2011 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

A previous poster said that PolitiFact was a web site of the St. Petersburg FL Times. Good to know. I thought it was a product of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, because they feature it on their main page website prominently. And the MJS whole heartily endorses the agenda of one Scott Walker, Gov-WI.

Posted by: IsthmusGuyWI on April 21, 2011 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure the vouchers that Ryan is proposing will do the seniors any good because if you eliminate the recent health reform, then you allow the insurance companies to decide whether or not to accept applicants and whether or not to cover preexisting conditions.

There is no insurance company in this country that will accept elderly people at the price that Ryan's vouchers would cover and there is no insurance company that would accept people with preexisting conditions like diabetes or heart conditions. Furthermore there is nothing to stop the insurance companies from dropping people as soon as they needed expensive reimbursement or putting a lifetime or annual limit on reimbursement.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on April 21, 2011 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

There is truth and there are facts. Sometimes, well meaning idiots let the facts obscure the plain truth.

PolitiFact are among those well meaning idiots in the present case. Still preening over the Pulitzer a couple years back.

Posted by: Hart Williams on April 21, 2011 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

I wrote to Politifact to complain. I'm sure I'll hear back from them any day now:

I found your post from 4/20/11, "Democrats say Republicans voted to end Medicare and charge seniors $12,000," both deeply disturbing and offensive.

A "strengthened, personalized Medicare plan," to quote from Conor Sweeney, is simply Orwellian language for ending Medicare. When you take a single-payer program (Medicare) and privatize it, it's no longer Medicare. I expect the truth from you. This wasn't it.

I encourage you to pick your elder experts more carefully. When Professor Kaplan states that, "The chief motivator of the Ryan plan is, plain and simple, to save the government money," he's revealing his right-wing allegiances; seriously, you didn't pick up on that? Ryan's plan adds significantly to the deficit. It has nothing whatsoever with "saving the government money." (If you need a source for this statement, see Paul Krugman's recent New York Times columns regarding the Ryan plan.)

I hopefully await your correction.

P.S. The snipe about the ad featuring actual seniors, when the reality will be slightly less elderly seniors, is just silly. The ad doesn't specifically state that it's set in the immediate future, does it?

Posted by: Marina on April 21, 2011 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

Glad you guys were there to take pictures and also be with what has grown to be practically your extended family! It's hard to get Bryan and Bethany's goofy, fun character and the serene, soothing setting and mix them together, but you did it.
Raw Super Foods

Posted by: Raw Super Foods on April 22, 2011 at 2:21 AM | PERMALINK

PolitiFact is run by a newspaper. A rather good newspaper (the St Pete Times), but still, as a newspaper it's subject to the cancer of journalism, and this is another symptom of that. The cancer, of course, is that the mainstream media insists on appeasing the wingnuts by playing the "middle of the road," refusing to call the wingnuts wingnuts even as the wingnuts move the middle of the road father and farther away from facts and sanity.

Posted by: Helen on April 22, 2011 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

I'm going to kill my cat "Boots" and replace it with a dog named "Boots".

According to Politifact I still have my cat.

Posted by: Grumpy Demo on April 22, 2011 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

cund gulag and atlliberal echoed mine.

This is desperate clawing for even-handedness when none is required.

To some degree, they have my sympathy. When you're calling one side liars 95% of the time, it starts to look biased even if evidence can back you up.

Sierra Club used to endorse ANY Republican who was remotely green because it was so rare that they could do so and sleep at night.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on April 23, 2011 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK
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