PolitiFuct

I’m about the 39,023,742th person to write about this so far today, but I couldn’t let the abomination of PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” go by without my own comment. If you’ve been somehow living under a rock (or inside a mall, without 3G coverage) for the past day, the fact-chucking checking web site PolitiFact has released its annual, end-of-year “Lie of the Year” award.

This year, the Lie of the Year goes to the claim that Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed medical plan, put forth earlier this year and then quickly abandoned by Republicans when it became clear it could not pass the Senate under any circumstances, would end Medicare.

It’s hard to know where to start with this, since the finding is so obviously, on-its-face untrue that it almost beggars the imagination that it earned coveted “lie of the year” spot at one of the nation’s most prominent (and supposedly eminent) fact-checking websites.

PolitiFact’s claim that this is a “lie” at all – let alone the biggest one of the year – centers on their (specious) reasoning that because Paul Ryan, throughout his plan’s text, still called the new, untested, untried program he intended to substitute for traditional Medicare, “Medicare.”

Really, that’s their reasoning: that Ryan still calls his plan “Medicare.”

PolitiFact proudly displays over a half-dozen separate instances of “refutation” of similar claims from earlier in the year, which led many commenters, such as Dave Dayen at FireDogLake to dramatically highlight the absurdity of such a claim:

You buy a hamburger from me and I give you a piece of hard black leather on a bun. You protest and I say, no, I’m still calling it a hamburger, so you got what you asked for. You start running around telling everyone I sell leather as hamburgers, and I get my local fact-checking organization to criticize you, because I clearly call the leather on a bun I sold you “hamburger.” They call you the liar of the year.

That’s exactly why the claim is wrong. If I take 40 pounds of modeling clay, a dozen bobby pins and a blowtorch and create something which I then call “Medicare”….is it fair to call it “Medicare” in the context that PolitiFact uses to justify their claim of “Lie of the Year” about Democratic characterizations of Ryan’s plan? Or does that word have some intrinsic meaning which one cannot stray too far from before the word loses all real-world meaning?

But wait, you say: a lump of burned clay isn’t a medical plan! At least Ryan’s plan IS a medical plan for the nation’s seniors. Of sorts. And you’d be correct to observe thusly…but my question about whether this plan is, in fact, Medicare just because it is a health care measure for old people remains. What makes Medicare Medicare? The answer is actually quite simple: Medicare is a government-run, single-payer plan which guarantees medical care to our nation’s seniors. It’s a bit (quite a bit, in fact) more complex than that in its details, but that’s the broad definition. When Medicare was passed, the nation had guaranteed medical security to its elderly population. Paul Ryan’s plan, by contrast, replaced that system with what amounts to a voucher for seniors to purchase health care for themselves on the open market from private companies. Over the past few years, many of us have had direct experience (and all of us have been witness to) some of the ways in which the for-profit insurance industry fails to address the needs of the population it purports to serve. Recissions, refusal to cover people with pre-existing conditions, unbearable premium increases – these are only a few of the areas in which horror stories emerge when considering modern American private health insurance. Ryan’s plan – simply put – exchanges a simple, guaranteed system of health care for elderly Americans for an untested, untried shot at giving the keys to America’s elderly’s health care back to the private, for-profit insurance companies. What makes Medicare Medicare, and what made it historic, is that government stepped up and said: we’re going to ensure that our nation’s old people don’t die in pain in awful surroundings because they cannot afford to pay for care. Ryan’s plan reinstates this insecurity. It privatizes our nation’s health insurance system for the elderly.

In short, Medicare is Medicare; Paul Ryan’s plan is just insurance with a voucher.

But that didn’t stop PolitiFact from repeatedly claiming that Democrats were “lying” (often “pants on fire” lying) when they claimed that Ryan’s plan “ended” or “killed” Medicare.

The most interesting stories of all about this ugly debacle have been two under-the-radar stories, both of which bear on the question of exactly HOW PolitiFact arrived at their decision to view things in this way. PolitiFact themselves have a page up which gives a clue to the first of the stories. Called How we chose the 2011 Lie of the Year, it points out, about a third of the way down its length, that “[w]e faced a new wrinkle this year: campaigning from both sides.” In other words, they PolitiFact were lobbied. Hard. But not, as it turns out, equally from both sides. Digby runs down the reality: “Paul Ryan emails his PAC, complete with a video” urging every one of his supporters and networked-in fellow-travelers to “…click here to cast your vote now at Politifact.” In other words, as Digby says, he stuffed the ballot box. Digby also points out that in the end, the editors at PolitiFact themselves chose this as their “Lie”; it wasn’t done by reader votes alone. In fact, the PolitiFact piece points out early on that the Ryan plan “lie” wasn’t even the top vote-getter. It came in third, behind John Kyl’s risible claim that “90% of Planned Parenthood services are abortions” and the biggest one in the readers’ opinion, the Republican claim that “zero jobs” were created by the economic stimulus.

So, if the hotly-contested claim that Democrats had lied about Ryan’s plan didn’t even finish second, let alone first, in readers’ surveys, what led PolitiFact to choose it as “Lie of the Year?

Politics, pure and simple.

One of the dangers of “independent” fact-checking organizations is that, even if they are truly “independent” (as in: free of any financial or other ties to groups or individuals with a vested interest in one or more areas the fact-checkers cover), they are not infallible, and they are especially not free from ordinary human biases. In this case, it’s important to notice some of the facts surrounding why PolitiFact probably chose to elevate one of their stories from the #3 slot into the marquee position.

Fact-checking by outside, “impartial” services like PolitiFact is a fairly new phenomenon in its current form. Fact checking itself has always existed, of course, but traditionally it was performed in-house by journalists and the publications they worked for, as a means of ensuring their own reputations as neutral arbiters and reliable sources of balanced information. With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, however, as well as the dramatic decline in newspaper readership (and thus, newspaper budgets), much fact-checking has gone by the wayside. Indeed, on certain previously-esteemed television shows like the venerable Meet the Press, new anchor David Gregory has famously insisted that it is not his job to fact-check his guests (virtually all of whom are among the most powerful people in the nation, either in government or (less frequently) business). Gregory, and an increasing number of his colleagues in journalism, apparently view fact-checking as time-consuming, boring and not all that helpful. He’s content – by his own admission – to simply allow the powerful public figures his show hosts onto his set to say whatever it is they wish to say, without challenge or refutation, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what was true, what was exaggerated, and what was complete self-serving falsehood.

Enter the “independent” fact-checking organization.

Of the new fact-checkers, two names – PolitiFact and Factcheck.org – are by far the best-known. That’s why this story of getting the Ryan claims so wrong is so important: because these organizations now have a tremendous amount of power to shape the narrative about what is true and what is not, even what is allowed to be spoken of in “serious” conversations and what is out-of-bounds.

Over the past two years, as PolitiFact themselves helpfully point out, both claims which took the coveted “lie of the year” spot were also about health care. What PolitiFact glosses over lightly, however, is the equally true fact that both years, those health-care related claims which took “lie of the year” honors were Republican whoppers. In 2009, it was the then-relevant Sarah Palin’s claim that the PPACA (“Obamacare”) included “death panels,” and in 2010 it was the oft-repeated GOP claim that the PPACA represented a “government takeover” of health care. In both instances, PolitiFact did a good job showing why these claims actually WERE false and misleading. On this year’s ballot, ALL of the other claims in the running – indeed, most of the claims they covered, period, were again GOP whoppers told about this or that Democratic proposal.

It seems quite likely, based upon the fact that this was the ONLY “lie” in three straight years that wasn’t from the GOP, and upon the fact that PolitiFact’s editors had to pull it out of third place in the readers’ poll, that PolitiFact simply fell victim to the fear of appearing biased against Republicans and/or in favor of Democrats by continuing to point out impartially how badly out-of-whack the lying/abuse of power situation in today’s Washington truly is, even if the facts would indicate that’s what they should do.

But perhaps the most interesting story about PolitiFact’s shameful bowing to the “both sides do it/are to blame” false equivalency was pointed out by Dave Weigel in Slate today:

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.

That’s possibly the most convincing, most damning piece of evidence yet that PolitiFact simply bent to the somewhat natural human instinct to believe that things can’t possibly be all one way or all the other way – along with a desire to see that their own impartiality wasn’t “tarnished” by continuing to report the truth that it is by FAR the Republicans doing most of the lying in congress these days. Why else would an organization devoted to forensic dissection of public figures’ claims about policy fail to mention the primary text from which the claim they’re purporting to debunk came?

Why? Because admitting that Paul Ryan’s plan does, in fact, end Medicare as we’ve all known it and replace it with something entirely unlike Medicare – a voucher system – was at first so non-controversial that it was first pointed out in the pages of one of the most well-known – and well-respected – conservative newspapers, the Wall Street Journal. Only, mentioning that would’ve thrown cold water on the notion that this was some wild-eyed Democratic exaggeration or “lie.” Mentioning that the GOP initially thought this would be so well-received that they didn’t attempt at all to hide the fact that they were eliminating Medicare, and everyone from Barack Obama to the op-ed page editors at the Wall Street Journal knew it, wouldn’t go very will with the notion that this was some mendacious Democratic plot.

It’s become an old joke over the last decade or so (basically, since the rise of FOX News) that “reality has a pronounced liberal bias” because modern Republicans are, as many observers have noted, perfectly willing to argue that either things aren’t as the evidence shows they are (think: the whole evolution/climate change idiocies) or that reality itself is wrong if it conflicts with GOP dogma. That’s fine: the constitution allows for free speech and doesn’t discriminate against or prevent speech that’s intentionally deceptive or misleading or even outright false. In fact, the concept of free speech rests in part on the premise that the cure for bad, false, deceptive speech is MORE, better, correct and accurate speech. It’s an implicit belief that truth will out, eventually, given enough time.

And it usually does, in our system. But it may do so less often if fallible organizations like PolitiFact arise to be viewed as infallible or even just trusted arbiters of what the truth – or at least the facts – are. Fact-checking can be a very valuable service indeed, done correctly and diligently. But if nothing else, PolitiFact’s 2011 “lie of the year” scandal should remind us all that we shouldn’t take ANY claim as gospel just because it came from an organization with “fact” in its name.

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