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Liberal Pundits Shocked to Discover PolitiFact Not Always Factual

4:30 PM, Dec 20, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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So the liberal punditry woke up today to find that PolitiFact has declared the "Lie of the Year" to be Democrats's claim that Paul Ryan's budget will "end Medicare" or "end Medicare as we know it." They're having quite the collective freakout—see Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, Brian Beutler, Steve Benen, et al. 

factchecking

And, believe it or not, I actually think they have a point. I also seem to recall that someone recently made a compelling case that media fact checks are really an excuse to make blatant opining appear credible by gussying it up as psuedo-scientific empiricism. 

Truthfully, the notion that Paul Ryan's plan will "end Medicare as we know it" is a fair assessment. The idea it flatly "ends Medicare" might be a bit too reductive, as there will still obviously be a federal program to help seniors get medical coverage and those currently over a certain age will be guaranteed to get Medicare as we know it. But broadly, I don't think it's a lie. In fact, "ending Medicare as we know it" is a good thing. The program is over $30 trillion in debt. Any politician who tells you that that they can preserve the program as it is and still get costs under control is probably lying to you. And I think Paul Ryan has basically been open about the fact that the status quo in Medicare must change.

Accusing Republicans of trying to end Medicare as we know it is also a stupid criticism because the implementation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will also "end Medicare as we know it." And unlike Ryan's plan, Democrats already made IPAB the law of the land. Under IPAB, unelected federal bureaucrats chosen by the president will bypass Congress and set the Medicare budget, and this will likely have pretty dramatic consequences for the program, such as severely restricting doctor access and rationing. It might well prove unconstitutional to boot.

Ironically, IPAB is explicitly anti-democratic by design. The idea is that Medicare attacks are so potent politically that the only way the program would be cut is if budgetary responsibility for it was given to people who aren’t answerable to voters. It seems pretty ridiculous that this is the guiding principle behind Democrats’ Medicare reform even as they continue to attack the GOP by accusing it of "ending Medicare."

So in the broader context, I think "ending Medicare" a highly insincere charge to level at Paul Ryan and the GOP. Is it a lie? Not really.

But this is exactly why PolitiFact and other media fact checkers are so poisonous to the political discourse. Arguing over whether a small bit of rhetoric in the debate over competing Medicare visions is a lie or not completely misses the forest for the trees.

Liberals are freaking out over this because they're so used to PoltiFact and other fact checkers breaking things their way. Further, PolitiFact's dubious honor couldn't come at a worse time for Democrats trying to make the case for their Medicare vision. Some congressional Democrats are already calling for IPAB to be repealed. The final nail in the coffin might be that Democratic senator Ron Wyden and, until recently, a beloved Democratic health care wonk, has signed on to a version of Ryan's Medicare plan.

However, given that PolitiFact has accused Republicans of lying three times as often as Democrats, why did PolitiFact happen to weigh in so decisively in favor of Republicans in a major political debate heading into an election year? Heaven help me for saying this, but I think Paul Krugman's on to something:

How is this not an end to Medicare? And given all the actual, indisputable lies out there, how on earth could saying that it is be the 'Lie of the year'? 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.

Unlike PolitiFact, I don't pretend to know the motivations of those I criticize, but Krugman's scenario actually strikes me as about as likely a motivation as anything. (There's also the matter that PolitiFact put their "Lie of the Year" up to a vote.) Where Krugman's wrong is that PolitiFact's penchant for treating opinions as facts was always useless, it only now seems irrelevant because he feels betrayed. After years of using the same problematic methodology against Republicans, the tables have been turned in a big way. Not coincidentally, liberal pundits are suddenly discovering the same exact problems with "fact checkers" conservative media critics have been railing about for years.

But don't worry. I'm sure PolitiFact will be back to bashing the Republican arguments in a highly disproportionate fashion in no time. Which is why some liberal pundits are hedging their bets before they condemn PolitiFact too harshly. Here's The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn. First, he readily acknowledges that PolitiFact frequently ignores the facts:

I've cited their Pulitzer-winning work before and hope I get the chance to do so again. But Politfact and its counterpart, Factcheck.org, are prone to certain errors. Among them is a tendency to confuse statements of opinion, or interpretation, for statements of fact.

Now here's his conclusion. I hope Cohn is kidding me here, or does he always miss the point this badly?:

Of course, it’s possible Politifact had another motive, as Krugman suggests: The organization may simply be trying to show that it can be balanced. Conservatives have suggested that fact-checking organizations, like the traditional media, are hopelessly biased against them. A recent cover story by Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard made that claim, noting that fact-checkers had cited Republican lies much more than Democratic lies.

I would argue there’s a good reason to cite Republican lies more than Democratic lies: They have been more plentiful and more egregious in the last few years. Conservatives won't like to hear that, but that's no reason for Politifact to pretend otherwise.

If the problem is, as Cohn acknowledges, PolitiFact tends to portray what's obviously opinion as fact, doesn't the notion that they single out Republicans as "lying" much more often suggest that they're just disagreeing with Republican opinions a lot more than Democratic ones? How is that not bias? And further, I'm glad Cohn "would argue" that Republicans have a bigger problem with telling the truth than Democrats. But it's not surprising he thinks that given his obvious sympathies. Making such a categorical and unsubstantiated assertion in the midst of a debate about what it means to check facts kind of refutes itself.

In any event, I'm happy liberal pundits have finally figured that there's more going on in this fact checking bordello than some raucous piano music. But if they'd been paying attention, they should have stopped patronizing these houses of ill journalistic repute a long time ago.

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