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.