The Blog

How to Read PolitiFact’s Broken ‘Truth-O-Meter’

9:45 AM, Oct 5, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

After staring in some amazement at PolitiFact’s ostensibly unbiased rulings on the truthfulness of various statements made during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, I finally realized what the problem is: PolitiFact’s self-described Truth-O-Meter is clearly broken. Thankfully, however, it’s broken in a way that’s both predictable and fixable.  You see, if you simply turn the Truth-O-Meter two notches to the right for any claim made by a Republican, and two notches to the left for any claim made by a Democrat, its reading actually becomes surprisingly accurate.  

PolitiFact

Photo Credit: PolitiFact

Here are some examples from Wednesday night’s debate: 

President Obama said that Mitt Romney’s proposed Medicare reforms were estimated to “cost the average senior about $6,000 a year.”  As PolitiFact notes, “[T]he figure is rooted in a study of an outdated Medicare plan” proposed by Paul Ryan.  PolitiFact writes, “The problem with Obama using this estimate is simple:  The CBO analysis [which offered a highly questionable conclusion to begin with] was of the original Ryan plan, not the more recent one that Romney supports,” which is substantially different. 

This would seem to be the end of the inquiry — Obama quoted an estimate for a plan that isn’t Romney’s.  PolitiFact, however, was seemingly persuaded by a report from (what it describes as) “a liberal think tank” and a memo from a 2008 Obama campaign advisor, each of which claims that the estimate holds for Romney’s plan as well.  Thus, PolitiFact rates Obama’s claim as “Half True.”  But once we push the needle over two spots to the left, the rating becomes what it should be:  “False.”

(Mark Hemingway offers a fuller analysis here.)

In another example, Romney said that the United States is “now spending 42 percent of our economy on government.”  As PolitiFact notes, “The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development — a group that includes most of the world’s advanced industrialized countries — found that government expenditures accounted for 42 percent of the U.S. economy in 2009….”  As PolitiFact also notes, this is the most recent OECD tally. 

PolitiFact, however, observes that the Obama White House’s Office of Management and Budget has released different — lower — tallies.  It then concludes, “Romney’s numbers…don’t tell the whole story.  A large share of the spending has come from not from [sic] the cost of government employees, buildings and equipment but from transfer payments that individual Americans ultimately control (and, in many cases, under programs which they had paid into to begin with).”  In other words, PolitiFact doesn’t think that Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid fully count as “government spending.”  So it rates Romney’s statement — and apparently also the OECD’s own tally — as “Mostly True.”  But once we push the needle over to the right (it can only go over one notch in this case), the rating becomes what it should be:  “True.”

In yet another example, Romney stated, “Right now, the [Congressional Budget Office] says up to 20 million people will lose their insurance as Obamacare goes into effect next year.”  The CBO writes that “assessing the effects of broad changes in the nation’s health insurance system requires assumptions and projections about a wide array of technical, behavioral, and economic factors,” and — as a result — “any projections of those effects are clearly quite uncertain.”  “To illustrate that uncertainty,” the CBO explains, it ran “certain alternative assumptions,” which resulted in different scenarios.  Under one of those scenarios, the CBO estimates “that the ACA [Obamacare] would reduce employment-based insurance coverage in 2019 by 20 million people.” 

PolitiFact, however, doesn’t like Romney’s “cherry-picking” (its language) of the CBO’s highest estimate.  (Perhaps, just to please PolitiFact, Romney should have said that up to 5 million — or 3 million, or 1 million— people will lose their insurance, even though the CBO says that the number is up to 20 million.)  PolitiFact also didn’t like Romney’s use of the word “lose,” when some of those people might willingly drop their insurance.  PolitiFact also writes that “many Americans lose their current health plan for reasons that have nothing to do with the new law.”  This is irrelevant, which suggests that PolitiFact doesn’t understand that what the CBO was scoring was Obamacare’s effect on employer-based insurance. 

For these reasons, PolitiFact rates Romney’s claim as “False.”  But once we push the needle over two spots to the right, the rating becomes “Half True.”  (This is a reasonable rating only because Romney said “next year” — although PolitiFact didn’t seem to notice — which is neither when Obamacare would go into effect nor when the number of 20 million people could be reached.) 

Lastly, Obama said that Romney “would turn Medicare into a voucher program.”  The CBO, however, doesn’t score such programs as voucher programs, and for good reason:  They aren’t voucher programs.  A voucher is something that someone is given to use to purchase something, much like a coupon.  The connotation — and the reason why Obama and his allies disingenuously use the term — is that seniors would be given this voucher, would have to go shopping for private insurance on their own, and would have to give the voucher to the insurer of their choice.  (One supposes that seniors who lose their voucher would be out of luck.)  In truth, seniors would simply tell the government which plan they have chosen, and the government would pay the bill.  No voucher or anything like it would ever be issued.  Yet PolitiFact, for no reason that’s particularly apparent from its write-up, rates Obama’s claim as “Mostly True.”  But once we push the needle over two spots to the left, the rating becomes what it should be:  “Mostly False.”

As one can see, with the proper adjustments, PolitiFact’s broken Truth-O-Meter isn’t nearly as useless as it might originally appear. 

Recent Blog Posts