Politifact’s ‘Lie of the year’ makes me sad

Politifact, the St. Petersburg-based fact-checker of political rhetoric, this morning announced that the “lie of the year” for 2011 was the Dem claim that the Paul Ryan plan to phase-in a privatization of Medicare could be called the “end of Medicare.”

Steve Benen  of the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog called it a “poor, credibility killing choice” and says Politifact “ought to be ashamed of itself.”

Paul Krugman, in his “Conscience of a Liberal” blog, says the “lie of the year” is “a statement that happens to be true.” Under the headline “Politifact, R.I.P.,” Krugman explains why Politifact did it:

“The answer is, of course, obvious: the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”

In choosing this “Lie of the Year,” Politifact committed a colossal oversimplification. In calling the Dem statements that the Ryan plan would end Medicare “a statement that happens to be true,” Krugman also committed a colossal oversimplification.

This is the third year that Politifact has awarded a “Lie of the Year” award. The previous two “awards” went to Republican “lies.” I have no inside knowledge (nor does Krugman) on the reasoning behind Politifact’s choice. But I don’t doubt that Krugman is onto something when he suggests that in deciding to give the liar-of-the-year “award” to the Dems, the Politifacters were mindful of the fact that the previous two awards had dinged the Repubs and, in the absurd exercise of choosing a “Lie of the Year,” leaned over backwards (sideways?) to find a Dem lie for this year’s “winner.”

To me, the problem is in the exercise itself. Although I like the Politifacters and often learn valuable information from their work, I prefer the original journalistic fact-checking site, factcheck.org, which doesn’t assign a truth-score to the statements it considers. Politifact rates each statement on a scale that runs from “true” to “false” and beyond to “pants on fire” for statements that are falser than false. Glen Klessler, the excellent fact-checker of the Washington Post, assigns a “Pinocchio” score. It’s more fun that way, and more likely to attract attention and be cited in the opposing party’s political ads. Likewise, choosing a “lie of the year” is, among other things, a publicity stunt, mostly about marketing.

The value of the fact-checkers is that they hold half-truthing politicians accountable and providing the missing context (most political “lies,” I would say, are committed by leaving out facts rather than saying stuff that has no footing in reality).

If you read Politifact’s actual “Lie of the Year” article, you will understand a lot more about about the Ryan plan than the average person knows. You’ll also find that Politifact enlists even the great Kathleen Hall Jamieson (one of the creators of factcheck.org, in fact) on its side in saying that Dems have long used half-truths to scare seniors about Medicare. Jamieson’s quotes are smart and useful, but you’ll also note that she isn’t endorsing a “lie of the year,” just adding some of the missing context and putting this year’s version of Mediscare half-truths into a bit of historical context.

Politifact, to its credit, also discusses the various pushbacks that were published against its earlier (pre-“Lie of the Year”) rulings on Dem statements about the Ryan plan. It even cites Krugman as one of those who disagree with its ruling on this score and summarizes the counter-argument against its ruling.

The trouble is, there is no “lie of the year.” The other trouble is, boring old fuddy-duddies like me don’t want anyone to have any fun.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/20/2011 - 11:28 am.

    Wipe those tears, and turn that frown upside down little fella.

    This is nothing to be squirting tears over; thoughtful conservatives won’t give this anymore credibility than they do anything else that Politifact has pubished.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 12/20/2011 - 11:43 am.

    There is lot more Politics than Fact in Politifact. Anyone with half a brain knows the debate over Ryan’s proposals are opinion, not fact.

    Politifact promotes the media’s narrative for itself as the arbiter of “truth”. Its not surprising that the media treats it’s claims to fact checking as credible.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/20/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    Ah, yes…it’s a sad thing to watch respected organizations make fools of themselves to satisfy political partisanship.

    But Politifact?…who cares?

    Unless I was distracted, I missed your “The Nobel Peace Prize For “Hope” Makes Me Sad” piece, Eric. Proportion counts.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/20/2011 - 12:28 pm.

    Ron Paul’s problem is that he makes specific proposals (unlike Bachmannn, who makes none, and Gingrinch, who makes many conflicting ones).
    The question here is about the -implications- of his proposal. Krugman concludes that Paul’s proposals, if implemented, could be funded only by requiring people under Medicare to underwrite most of their own costs through the purchase of private health insurance. R Paul obviously disagrees with Paul K on this implication.

  5. Submitted by chuck holtman on 12/20/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    If you want the respect of the establishment media, you must show unbending fealty to the principle of BSDI (Both Sides Do It). Politifact clearly craves that respect.

    The claim that the Ryan bill would end Medicare is premised on the term “Medicare” having a specific meaning (however imperfectly realized): that of a medical insurance system “owned” by the people and managed for the public welfare as opposed to private profit. The primary intent of the Ryan proposal was to privatize Medicare. A privatized Medicare is no longer “Medicare.” To argue otherwise is to engage in Clintonesque obfuscation as to the accepted meanings of words.

    To claim that privatizing Medicare would not be a fundamental change would be to suggest that there is no important difference between a system of privatized and a system of public, single-payer insurance. As I recall, just a year or so earlier, those for whom Politifact is now carrying water protested fairly vigorously that moving from the former to the latter would end civilization as we know it. I sense a little inconsistency here.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/20/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    Yeah, right. If they had any credibility they’d be naming Krugman liar of the decade.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/20/2011 - 01:27 pm.

    #4: Paul, don’t you mean “Paul Ryan” rather than “Ron Paul”?

    Also, I don’t see how Paul Krugman was wrong in calling out Politifact on this one. As Chuck says at #5, “[s] privatized Medicare is no longer “Medicare.” To argue otherwise is to engage in Clintonesque obfuscation as to the accepted meanings of words.”

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/20/2011 - 01:34 pm.

    Dennis, do you have any facts to back up your claim that Krugman is a liar? Politifact may have gotten it wrong, but at least they make an attempt to back up their position. That gives them a lot more credibility than someone who calls someone “liar of the decade” with absolutely nothing to back it up.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/20/2011 - 02:01 pm.

    Fact-checking, especially in an age when many people get their “news” from television, seems vital to me. Calling out the half-truths and occasional outright lie strikes me as equally important.

    That said, choosing a “Lie of the Year” strikes me, as it does you, Eric, as marketing.

    As Mr. Swift suggests, “Who cares?” If you have a history of off-the-wall statements (e.g., Mrs. Bachmann), choosing a particular one as “most outrageous” doesn’t really serve a useful purpose. Mr. Gingrich, as Paul Brandon mentions, says many contradictory things, almost all of which are varying shades of “truth” and “not-truth.” It’s hard to pick just one, and doing so isn’t especially helpful to any but those who build their lives around snark.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if, as has been suggested, there’s a bit of a balancing act going on here, and I *would* be surprised if no Democrat could be found who’d issued a statement that was just as much a half-truth or outright lie as something put forward by Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Gingrich. Half-truths are a substantial part of political discourse, and have been for centuries.

    I kind of like “pants on fire” simply because it adds a little fun to what is otherwise often just a little too solemn and dignified. Politicians and their supporters are inclined to take themselves far too seriously – the illusion of central position, an important psychological characteristic of small children, tends to run rampant in the political class…

  10. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/20/2011 - 02:02 pm.

    “I have no inside knowledge (nor does Krugman) on the reasoning behind Politifact’s choice.”

    I don’t know what kind of inside knowledge you think you need. The “lie of the year” wasn’t a lie. There is, and long has been, pervasive pressure by conservatives to inject false “balance” into any number of media outlets in an effort to hide their tendency to have little interest in facts getting in the way of their ideology. So, it seems hard not to conclude that Politifact is either bowing to this pressure or deeply confused about the meaning of the word “lie”.

  11. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/20/2011 - 03:49 pm.

    One reason I think you will find physicians to be more liberal minded is that they have to deal with facts. Some of the conservative folks would go almost as far as to prefer 5 cancer screenings for one rich person than 5 cancer screenings for five people. If you read pieces of long form non fiction (New Yorker, Atlantic) is about the effort to contain costs and how hard it is.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/20/2011 - 04:00 pm.

    “So, it seems hard not to conclude that Politifact is….deeply confused about the meaning of the word “lie”.”

    Yeah, there’s a whole lot of that going on these days.

    Guess it all comes down to what your favorite flavor meaning of “is”, is….

  13. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/20/2011 - 06:17 pm.

    Eric (and all) I don’t know if this will make you less sad or not but:

    “Getting somewhat lost in this discussion is where the “ends Medicare” line came from. It was not birthed like Athena from the skull of Nancy Pelosi. It came from an April 4, 2011 preview of the Ryan plan by Naftali Bendavid, writing in the Wall Street Journal — that simmering pot of liberal bias. Here is how Bendavid described it.

    “The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills. Mr. Ryan and other conservatives say this is necessary because of the program’s soaring costs.”

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/12/20/the_lie_of_the_year_continued.html

  14. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/20/2011 - 07:59 pm.

    It seems like someone in the comments should point out that Politifact is actually calling foul because Dems gave the impression that the GOP was voting on an immeadiate end to Medicare. The Ryan plan is a phase out and yes, I agree that it would *eventually* end Medicare as we know it. But it wouldn’t cut off current seniors or those that are close to retirment. That seems like an important distinction to me.
    Not that I want to go too far in praising Politifact. Too often they confuse opinion with fact. And the idea that they have some kind of Olympian detachment is pretty silly.

  15. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 12/20/2011 - 09:15 pm.

    #14 Why is it unfair to say that changing something into a completely different thing isn’t “ending” it? Of course it is! Just because those between 55 and 65 aren’t affected?

    Or will they be? From TNR: “If the House Republican proposal were to become law, it’s possible (some experts would say likely) that today’s elderly would suffer, because the risk pool for Medicare itself would get sicker and sicker. That would require ever larger subsidies from outside the system. But as the constituency for traditional Medicare shrunk, as elderly beneficiaries died, the political will to make those subsidies would likely ebb.”

    So it would likely affect those 55 and over still on Medicare. As well as those under 55 on Couponcare.

  16. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/20/2011 - 09:17 pm.

    Politically, it may not matter: Republicans eventually abandoned Ryan-Care because of its sheer unpopularity without Democrats having to come up with something better.

    Both parties have, somewhere inside them, a serious proposal to reform Medicare. If they thought they could be elected by offering such a plan, they would do so. But any serious attempt to reform Medicare is going to be unpopular because it will cost the elderly something, and the elderly are on the way to becoming 30% of the voting population. Thus, the opposing party is inevitably going to use such a proposal to kill the other at the next election without advancing an alternative.

  17. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/20/2011 - 10:00 pm.

    @#7–
    Yes, though it could apply to both of them.
    But PK’s main beef is with Ryan.

  18. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/21/2011 - 07:24 am.

    #15 Tom, yeah, it can be lying. If we’re looking at a ten year phase out and you tell someone that the checks will stop next week then you’re lying to them. This particular case involves plenty of gray area because Dems mostly just avoided mentioning that it would involve a phase out period. However ads like the one where Granny is literally pushed off of a cliff were clearly meant to give the wrong impression.

  19. Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 12/21/2011 - 10:06 am.

    I would have preferred that Politifact release a year end “batting average”. I would be more interested in a ranking of politicians and candidates by their percentage of lies. Further, they could even rank them by severity of their lies, a kind of On Base Percentage.

  20. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 12/21/2011 - 07:50 pm.

    #18-Does the Ryan House GOP plan end Medicare radically from what it’s been for 46 years?

  21. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 12/21/2011 - 10:26 pm.

    #20 Tom, it wouldn’t change it if you’re older than 55.

    As I said back in my first comment (#14) the plan would change Medicare in such a way that it would end it in it’s current form. It just won’t change it for some time. And that’s at least a little bit important when you’re trying to scare seniors about their coverage, don’t you think? That’s what Politifact is arguing.
    I don’t think it’s unreasonable of them. It’s similar to the argument put forth by our host, that we shouldn’t refer to Social Security going broke since that won’t happen for twenty some years for now. There is a crucial bit of context that is important to understand the big picture.

  22. Submitted by Mike Finley on 12/24/2011 - 09:07 am.

    The truth is that any medium-sized change to Medicare “changes it as we know it.” That’s what the words mean. Think, people.

  23. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/24/2011 - 07:20 pm.

    Mike–
    The difference is between reforms in the basic Medicare system that leave it a public program, or ones that turn it into a voucher system for private insurance companies.

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