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December 23, 2011 9:55 AM PolitiFact returns to the scene of the crime

By Steve Benen

PolitiFact made a credibility-killing mistake this week, choosing a claim for its Lie of the Year that, upon further reflection, happens to be true. I didn’t intend to return to the subject, but PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, clearly aware of the criticism, published a follow-up defense yesterday.

I won’t go through Adair’s piece in detail — Dave Weigel and Jamison Foser both published compelling, thorough responses, exposing PolitiFact’s misguided judgment — but I will note what a missed opportunity this was. I didn’t really expect the fact-checking website to admit its error, but I’d hoped Adair would read this week’s criticisms and take the time to consider the substance behind the condemnations. Instead, he published a petty, overly defensive, and self-congratulatory piece that ignored the underlying policy concerns altogether.

Adair acknowledged that “some” of those responding negatively were “substantive and thoughtful.” That’s nice, but it’d be even nicer if PolitiFact explained why those “substantive and thoughtful” critiques were incorrect. More than anything, I guess I’m just disappointed that PolitiFact chose not to take a more professional approach.

Paul Krugman today once again sets the record straight.

The background here is that Republicans voted to dismantle Medicare as we know it — a single-payer system in which the government pays essential medical bills — and replace it with a voucher scheme that, in the judgment of many health-care experts (and the Congressional Budget Office), would leave seniors having to pay large premiums out of pocket in order to afford adequate insurance; clearly, some and perhaps many would end up without adequate coverage.

This really is the end of the program we now know as Medicare. Maybe PolitiFact would like Democrats to use longer words and include qualifications, rather than saying simply that it ends Medicare — although as Brad DeLong points out, some of the Ryan plan’s supporters actually boasted that, yes, it ends Medicare as we know it. But it’s just absurd to call Democrats’ basically factual statement “Lie of the Year”.

Making that call was just a terrible decision, and it reeks of a philosophy that ranks achieving “balance” as being more important than reporting the facts.

I rather doubt Adair will want to return to the subject, but I’ll pose just two questions for PolitiFact’s editors to consider, as it comes to terms with just how damage they’ve done to their site’s reputation:

1. By PolitiFact’s judgment, the accuracy of the Democrats’ Medicare argument comes down to an interpretation of the word “end.” As Adair put it in his follow-up piece, some “view” the meaning of the word differently. If the debate ultimately comes down to semantics, and differing views are the basis for the disagreement, how in the world could this possibly be the Lie of the Year, especially when it was competing against several nominees that are actual, demonstrable, unambiguous, pants-on-fire lies?

2. In 2009, PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year was a Republican lie. In 2010, the Lie of the Year was another Republican lie. In 2011, the top two vote-getters among PolitiFact readers were both Republican lies. Is it just a coincidence that this year, PolitiFact overlooked obvious and deliberate GOP falsehoods in order to pick a semantics fight over the meaning of the word “end,” or did the editors make a conscious choice to create a sense of partisan “balance,” even if that meant selecting a lie that appears to be true?

Like I said, I rather doubt Adair wants to respond — indeed, he already had a chance to answer questions like these in his piece yesterday, and he chose not to — but I’d argue these two questions get to the heart of PolitiFact’s misjudgment.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • stevio on December 23, 2011 10:03 AM:

    I bet Adair receives a case of single malt from Boehner this Xmas. Hope he chokes on it...

  • Lance on December 23, 2011 10:17 AM:

    Such naughty liars we liberals are, calling a plan to end Medicare a plan to end Medicare.

    Oh, you mean the FIRST people to call this a plan to end Medicare were all conservatives?

    Maybe we shouldn't have quoted them?

  • c u n d gulag on December 23, 2011 10:21 AM:

    PolitiFact just further discredited itself.

    Are we sure Politico didn't buy them out, and it's now PolitiCOFact?

  • Private Citizen on December 23, 2011 10:23 AM:

    Can a viewpoint be both substantive and thoughtful and a lie of the year?

    Adair acknowledged that “some” of those responding negatively were “substantive and thoughtful.” That’s nice, but it’d be even nicer if PolitiFact explained why those “substantive and thoughtful” critiques were incorrect.

    Setting asside the straw men approach that is critiqued in your link, I think this is actually the key issue in his response.

    Instead of addressing the substantive and thoughtful critiques, his response instead goes out of its way to bring up irrelevant and non-thoughtful critiques (e.g. quoting some random anonlymous gawker post).

    Not only does it fail to point out why they find the thoughtful critiques incorrect, but to be a lie of the year, something must not only be incorrect but knowingly so.

    A critique cant be both "substantive" and "thoughtful" and a "lie" let alone a lie of the year.

  • Gandalf on December 23, 2011 10:25 AM:

    Politifacts parsing of the meaning of the word end is actually quite astounding. If end means different things to different people I'd really like for Adair to give a couple alternative meanins to the word end.

  • June on December 23, 2011 10:33 AM:

    The real damage here is that that Paul Ryan, et al. will quote Politifact's finding ad nauseum and use it to relentlessly hoodwink seniors (and others) into voting Medicare out of existence. I wonder how "Politifact" can sleep at night.

  • espierce on December 23, 2011 10:34 AM:

    PolitiFact is from my hometown newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times and it's hard to accept this travesty of reporting in an otherwise decent newspaper.

    Adair, by doubling down, has written the epitaph for this feature.

    RIP PolitiFact.

  • Buffalo Harold on December 23, 2011 10:34 AM:

    If "end" no longer means "end," then PolitiFACT means PolitiFICTION. Or maybe PolitiFRAUD?

  • Vondo on December 23, 2011 10:40 AM:

    I'm going to (sort of) rise to the defense of Politifact.

    Their beef with the original ad that started this was that Democrats didn't say "[Eventually] end Medicare [as we know it]" I think it was ridiculous to rate this pants on fire in the first place, but the Democratic ad did either contain falsehoods or encourage people to believe falsehoods. It said "Seniors will have to pay" not "in the future seniors will have to pay" etc.

    Do I think this was the lie of the year? No. Were the campaign ads that came out of it accurate? Also "No"

    As for the other "Lie of the Year" candidates, take a look at the list and look at their criteria. A lie has to be widely repeated and consequential. What fits that? 'The economic stimulus created "zero jobs."' does. Kyl's idiocy on Planned Parenthood certainly doesn't. None of the other candidates do either.

    My beef is much more with the original "Pants on Fire" designation that the "Lie of the year" part.

    And I will continue reading Politifact and the rest of them. They are not perfect, but they are the best we have. Aside from (maybe) this issue, I see no evidence they are particularly biased against one side or the other.

  • John__C on December 23, 2011 10:44 AM:

    I'd argue that the real rub of the story is not the meaning of "end" so much as what legitimately gets to be called "Medicare." Adair believes his semantic-based view on that matter is correct, and anyone who disagrees with him does so only because that person is "factually" wrong.

    I actually agree with Ramesh Ponnuru: That's a decision best left to the political marketplace, not Adair or anyone else at PolitiFact.

  • Josef K on December 23, 2011 10:45 AM:

    If you look under the Ten Mile Square banner, Jonathan Alter picks up this very issue (and continues to insist the "end Medicare" claim is a lie).

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2011/12/lies_damn_lies034273.php

    You might as well dismantle an M-1 tank, use some of the parts to build an Apache helicopter, and insist on calling said 'copter "an M-1 tank".

    This is just ridiculous, even for the Beltway media.

  • AL on December 23, 2011 10:50 AM:

    I'm confused.

    Politifact's MAIN defense seems to be 2 points:
    1.- Other fact checkers agree with them (FactCheck.org)
    2.- They say democrats failed to mention Ryan's plan would leave Medicare as it is to people already eligible.

    I don't see Krugman's nor Steve's response to those points. if I missed them please set me straight. Because otherwise Politifact has some cover, and we look like whiners for not knowing how to play the game (make sure your accusations are 100% accurate).

  • Reginald Perrin on December 23, 2011 10:53 AM:

    And don't forget that Sen. Kyl's defense of his outright pants-on-fire lie was that his very specific statistic was not meant to be taken as literally true. So Politifact's argument that the "end" Medicare statement was the Lie of the Year because of the semantics of the word "end" isn't even consistent with their decision. At least Democrats really did believe that the Ryan plan would end Medicare, and meant the statement to be taken as literally true. Clearly politifact is just trying to achieve false balance, as Benen argues.

  • stratplayer on December 23, 2011 10:56 AM:

    The whole idea of a purportedly neutral factchecking operation singling out a "Lie of the Year" was flawed from its inception and almost guaranteed to damage PolitiFact's credibility sooner or later. The spotlight focuses exclusively on the "Lie of the Year" and all the rest get flushed down the memory hole. The only way PolitiFact can rehabilitate its reputation is to scuttle this silly, unserious gimmick altogether.

  • invisible_hand on December 23, 2011 10:57 AM:

    can someone fact-check his defense? haha.

    but seriously folks, i agree with the line of criticism that portrays this whole genre as ultimately problematic. going to the facts should not be a niche market. fact-checking is supposed to be what all journalism, exposing convenient narratives to the harsh light of evidence. to allow fact-checking to become a complementary, or worse supplementary, component to journalism disserves the entire fourth estate, completing its transformation into becoming public relations for monied interests.

  • square1 on December 23, 2011 11:00 AM:

    Adair has revealed himself to be a clown.

    It is worth comparing the 2009 lie of the year, "Death Panels", to this year's. "Death Panels" was objectively false.

    Palin claimed: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."

    This is just objectively false. No bill ever proposed such panels.

    In contrast, Democrats weren't misrepresenting the facts of Ryan's plan. Democrats weren't claiming that Ryan's plan immediately ended Medicare. Or that it wouldn't be replace with anything. They simply argued that replacing the existing system with vouchercare constituted an end to Medicare. Adair's opinion may be that ending Medicare is a mischaracterization, but to call it a lie is a joke.


    Adair probably should have said, "We stand by the fact that the phrase intentionally misleading. But there are other examples of untruths said this year that are more demonstrably false. The Medicare quote probably shouldn't have been 'lie of the year.'"

  • JD on December 23, 2011 11:08 AM:

    Excellent post, Steve. This brings to mind a question that has always nagged at me: why aren't folks like you on the talk shows? You obviously know a lot more than clowns like Peggy Noonan, Harold Ford, etc. You can actually talk about the policy as well as the politics of really important issues with facts and reasoning.

    Maybe they just don't care about such things.

  • kevo on December 23, 2011 11:25 AM:

    When agenda sets observation, reality gets slammed every time! Framing judgement and justice in blue or red, donkey or elephant, Democratic or Republican can lead to myopia and false teeth! That's most probably why Bill Adair continues to blindly gum the credibility of his domain!

    Politifact has failed, plain and simple! -Kevo

  • Josef K on December 23, 2011 11:41 AM:

    From AL at 10:50 AM:

    Politifact's MAIN defense seems to be 2 points:
    1.- Other fact checkers agree with them (FactCheck.org)
    2.- They say democrats failed to mention Ryan's plan would leave Medicare as it is to people already eligible.

    Regarding #1: its irrelevant whether or not FactCheck and/or any other entity 'agrees' with their interpretation. The objective fact is Ryan's plan dismantles the existing program, replaces it with a ramshackle mess and continues to call it "Medicare". Even if the original program remains intact for current enrollees (which I'm not convinced of), the original program is still gone and has been replaced with something else.

    The facts and details are not in PolitiFact's favor here. Who agrees with them isn't relevant.

    Regarding #2: I hadn't actually heard of this, but it changes nothing. The Ryan plan's sole intent is to end the existing program and replace with something wholly different. That it spares current enrollees by keeping that original structure - an unworkable maneuver at best - only reinforces how wrong PolitiFact is here.

    Turning this program into a two-track framework is no less dismantling it than if he offered vouchers for all. So, again, PolitiFact is wrong to call this one "a lie".

  • Robert on December 23, 2011 11:47 AM:

    This seemingly small incident may in fact be the tombstone for "professional journalism" as we who lived through the Morrow/Cronkite Watergate era understood it.(Of course, even then the 'news' was managed to an embarrassing extent, but, it seemed there was at least a good faith effort to report accurately on the main themes.) The era when 'journalism'had any credibility at all just may be over when the professed 'fact checkers' can't get the facts straight.Memo to 'politifancy'; if you end the ongoing availability of a single payer Medicare system for new entrants, or offer an option which sucks the money and public support out of same, you have put in place a program which will slowly but inevitably 'end Medicare as we know it'. Truth.

  • 2Manchu on December 23, 2011 12:07 PM:

    It was the Wall Street Journal, in an April 4 article (one day before the Ryan bugdet plan was officially released) to make the "end Medicare" comment:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703806304576240751124518520.html

    The actual quote: "The plan would essentially end Medicare,..."

    Politifact has this article in its list of references for the "Lie of the Year", but it does not mention that it was the WSJ that first made the "end Medicare" statement. Instead, they make it appear in their article that it was the Democrats who made up the statement.

    So shouldn't Politifact be putting the blame on the Wall Street Journal for being the first to suggest that the GOP was planning on "ending Medicare"?

  • sven on December 23, 2011 12:28 PM:

    @Josef K - Alter is among my least favorite of the 'liberal' pundits. He skews neo-liberal, which is his right, but refuses to defend his arguments when attacked from the left. Here is an example from his defense of Politifact: (apologize for the length)

    "The idea is essentially to extend Obama’s Affordable Care Act to older Americans, which would help shift the system away from the fee- for-service model that drives its unsustainable costs. Already, Ryan-Wyden has the support of many of the same Republicans who despise “Obamacare” for everyone younger. Go figure. Democrats, meanwhile, crassly reject it because they don’t want to lose an election-year issue."

    Note the first claim, fee-for-service is the driver of unsustainable costs. This is true across our system and won't be changed if Medicare is privatized. Alter doesn't address the key issue, that traditional Medicare (single payer) has been more cost effective than private insurance in recent decades. Then notice the rhetorical shift at the end. Democrats don't have any real arguments (because he ignores them) so they must be resisting the 'good' policy (his) for crass reasons.

    If you read his work consistently this is a strategy which crops up regularly. It is particularly common when he writes about education.

  • matt w on December 23, 2011 12:45 PM:

    AL -- Josef K is right about point 2 -- preserving Medicare for those already eligible is a way of ending Medicare; it just does it for everyone else.

    As for point 1, it's striking that Adair accuses his critics of living in an echo chamber, and then defends his claim by pointing out that some other fact-checking organizations agree. Perhaps the only echo chambers you notice are the ones you aren't in?

  • TCinLA on December 23, 2011 1:03 PM:

    Politi"Fact", like the rest of the cucumber-sandwich crowd of self-congratulatory "good government" types, is useless. Anyone who pays further attention to these morons merely demonstrates their status as a moron.

  • Stephen Stralka on December 23, 2011 1:13 PM:

    I have a more basic question. Are we required to pretend that Democrats lie anywhere near as frequently as Republicans? That Republican these days follow any standards of honesty and intellectual rigor at all? Unless we can face the reality that part of the problem here is the utter debasement of one of our two parties, we're never going to find real solutions.

  • Anon on December 23, 2011 6:07 PM:

    Adair makes it extremely clear in just one sentence that he just doesn't get it:

    "We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false."

    The entire point of the critiques is that you *do* have to judge the merits of the Ryan plan. I mean, for God's sake, you could say that you disagree with judgements of the plan being put forth by Krugman et al., but to say that you didn't judge it at all? Should we conclude from this that even if the Ryan plan consisted of summary execution for everyone over the age of 55, then Democrats would *still* be lying to call that ending Medicare?

    And then he whines that people are writing off PolitiFact because of this. They damn well should.

  • Doug on December 23, 2011 7:09 PM:

    "It said 'Seniors will have to pay', not "in the future seniors will have to pay.'" Vondo @ 10:40 AM

    And "will" isn't a future tense?

  • RalfW on December 23, 2011 7:44 PM:

    If you asked most people 10,15 or 20 years ago when their pension plans were replaced with a 401(k) plan whether their pensions ended, I think the majority would say yes.

    They knew even then, and they (and I) danged well know now in this volatile market that their defined benefit ended and was replaced by a defined contribution. Both are retirement plans, but one puts the risk on the org and the other on the individual.

    And just like with health care, many of the risks are mostly beyond the individuals control.

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