After widespread condemnation for selecting the true statement that Republicans voted to “end Medicare” as its Lie of the Year, Politifact has published the most hilariously self-aggrandizing response to criticism since Jonah Goldberg defended his book Liberal Fascism as “a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.” My initial reaction to Politifact’s defense, written by editor Bill Adair, was mockery; the piece seemed to justify little more, light as it was on substance. I’ve changed my mind. Politifact seems to be under the impression that its critics are crass partisans who oppose the concept of independent fact-checking. In fact, its critics, this one included, are fierce advocates of holding public figures accountable for falsehoods and object not to the concept of independent fact-checking but to its incompetent execution.
Since Politifact steadfastly refuses to respond to substantive critiques of its Lie of the Year choice, I won’t re-litigate the selection here; suffice to say it was an absurd decision, both because the statement in question is not a lie and because it overlooked the numerous economic falsehoods that have ensured that America’s economy remains in the ditch. Politifact’s unwillingness to engage substantively amounts to a de facto concession that its choice cannot be directly defended.
Instead, Politifact lashed out at critics with a series of baseless ad hominem insults, interspersed with comical boasts, highlighted by the thoroughly underwhelming insistence that Politifact rulings are “based on hours of journalistic research.” Criticism of Politifact, meanwhile, came from “the liberal blogosphere” and “from people who are sure their side is always right” and people who “love us when we confirm their views that the other side is wrong — and they hate us when we don’t.” (The suggestion that Politifact’s critics are liberals blinded by partisanship would have been more difficult to make had Politifact acknowledged that no fewer than two conservative writers for the National Review have been among the chorus of critics of the Lie of the Year choice. And so Politifact didn’t acknowledge it.)
This suggestion that critics of Politifact’s assessment of the Medicare controversy are knee-jerk partisans who reject independent fact-checking is an offensive slur. To name just a few of the many writers who have taken issue with Politfact’s assessment: Brad DeLong regularly features on his blogs posts titled “Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps,” in which he rebukes reporters for failing to fact-check politicians’ falsehoods -- and for making their own false claim. Dan Froomkin is deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and made a name for himself as one of the few journalists who regularly challenged Bush administration falsehoods about war. Paul Krugman has spent years pushing, prodding, cajoling and outright begging reporters to check their facts, and those of the officials and “experts” they quote. And me? I’ve written tens of thousands of words, at least, about the need for political reporters to focus on facts and tell their readers and viewers what is true and what is false:
Consumers of news lack the time, expertise, and, in many cases, ability to determine which of two contradictory statements by competing political figures is true. They often lack the resources to determine if, for example, President Bush's claim to have "delivered" on the promises he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is true. That's where news organizations should -- but, with depressing frequency, have not -- come in. They have -- or should have -- the expertise and the time to assess those claims, and to report the facts. That's what readers, viewers, and listeners need. That's what journalism should be all about.(And I dare anyone affiliated with Politifact to read this, then tell me Politifact takes the quest for truth more seriously than I do.)
On the other hand, as consumers of news, we don't need journalists telling us what the "political impact" of something is going to be; how it will "play at the polls." It's our job to decide that. It's our job to decide who we'll vote for and why; how we'll assess the parties' competing agendas and approaches to the problems we face.
Instead of telling us how they think we'll react, we need journalists to give us the information upon which we can make an informed decision. To tell us the facts, and the truth, and the relevant context. Then we'll tell them the political impact.
So when Politifact pretends its critics are upset that it has “disrupted the status quo” by “doing what journalists should have been doing for a long time — holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words,” that’s absolute nonsense. Nobody -- nobody -- is criticizing Politifact for holding people accountable for their words. The most vocal critics of Politifact’s Lie of the Year selection have been doing exactly that -- and begging the media to join in -- since before Politifact even existed. We haven’t criticized Politifact for holding people accountable; we’ve criticized Politifact for making bad judgements. If Politifact had an ounce of decency, it would apologize to Krugman and Froomkin and everyone else it smeared with the suggestion of nakedly partisan motives.
More than anyone, Politifact owes an apology to Gawker’s Jim Newell, whose criticism of Politifact was substantive and, not incidentally, correct:
Politifact considers "end Medicare" a lie because Paul Ryan's plan would keep a program called "Medicare" as the public policy solution to the problem of financing health care for old people. But the "Medicare" program, as long as it's been around, has been a single-payer, fee-for-service model. That's what it is, and that's why it's popular. Ryan's plan (at least that version of it) would eliminate that system and deal with the problem of financing health care for old people with a program of "premium support" — distributing coupons for beneficiaries to purchase a health insurance plan in a managed private market. […] Can you say that a program that keeps the name Medicare, but is in fact a totally different program, "ends Medicare"? Sure.Here’s how Politifact responded:
The most over-the-top response (was it tongue-in-cheek?) was a rant from Jim Newell in Gawker under the headline "Why PolitiFact is bad for you." He conveniently ignored the fact that our fact-checks are based on hours of journalistic research and portrayed them as the work of rogue bloggers with a gimmicky meter.Talk about over-the-top! Actually, it’s worse than over the top: Politifact’s characterization of Newell’s argument is simply a lie. Newell didn’t write anything even remotely resembling “It’s dangerous to put independently researched information in the hands of the citizenry.” He wrote that Politifact was wrong, explained why, and added that blind faith in their ratings is dangerous. If Politifact actually understood the values it espouses, it would readily agree with this obvious truth. (And why on earth should Newell have written that Politifact’s “fact-checks are based on hours of journalistic research”? That’s entirely irrelevant to the question of whether Politifact was right. Politifact may as well have complained that Newell “conveniently ignored” the fact that three Politifact reporters have golden retrievers.)
"PolitiFact is dangerous," he said.
Really? It's dangerous to put independently researched information in the hands of the citizenry?
Adair concluded Politifact’s screed with this gem:
Yes, PolitiFact is dangerous. We have disrupted the status quo because we're doing what journalists should have been doing for a long time — holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words.That reminded me of something one of those knee-jerk partisan haters of independent fact-checks once wrote. I refer, of course, to myself:
Checking the truthfulness of a politician’s statements shouldn’t be something a news organization saves for its “Fact Check” feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn’t enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I’ve been saying over and over again. […] What I’d like to see isn’t another media organization with a branded, occasional “Fact Check” feature -- it’s a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician’s statement without placing that statement in factual context. I suspect that a news organization that made that -- rather than assessments of how the claim will “play” -- a central value would see at least some of the readership benefits that the special branded features apparently bring. And I’m certain it would result in better journalism and a better-informed readership.At its best, Politifact does indeed hold people accountable for their words. At their best, all news organizations do this. Unfortunately, Politifact also sometimes confuses more than it illuminates and wastes resources on pointless exercises that trivialize the concept of fact-checking and produces factual and conceptual train-wrecks. When it does so, it’s going to get some criticism. That’s something an organization that self-righteously boasts of “doing what journalists should have been doing for a long time -- holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words” should applaud. Instead, Politifact lashed out, behaving more like the partisans it accuses its critics of being than like a news organization devoted to truth and fact.
Compare and contrast:
Politifact, 12/22/11: “[O]ur fact-checks are based on hours of journalistic research.”***
Politifact, 9/10/10: “[C]omparing a dozen or more income ranges -- each of which need to be adjusted for inflation -- over a series of nearly 20 separate tax years is a complicated process, and we were not convinced that Obama had actually intended to make the more detailed comparison. So we compared just the top rate.”
Politifact calls criticism of the organization for false balance “a sad byproduct of our polarized discourse, from people who are sure their side is always right.” Yet the piece begins by equating Rush Limbaugh with The Huffington Post and Rachel Maddow -- as classic a case of false balance as you could imagine. I admit I may have missed something, but I don’t recall Rachel Maddow everspreading murder conspiracy theories about a Republican president.
In re-reading this
Since Politifact’s posts are“based on hours of journalistic research,” I’m sure they know that the Tax Foundation’s president previously worked at Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Heritage Foundation, and helped found the Heartland Institute, all of which are conservative organizations. The Tax Foundation's board of directors consists of well-known conservatives like former Republican Congressman Bill Archer and former Bush and McCain aide Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Former board members include Reagan OMB Director James Miller and Bush economic adviser Glenn Hubbard. The Tax Foundation is funded by a who’s-who of right wing foundations, including those affiliated with Richard Mellon Scaife, Koch Industries, and Exxon Mobil. The Tax Foundation favors the repeal of the estate tax and low capital gains taxes, both of which disproportionately benefit the rich, and its president says the deficit is a “spending problem” that should be addressed “on the spending side only” -- all of which are conservative positions long advocated by Republicans.
I wonder, then, why Politifact thought it appropriate to describe the Tax Foundation as “an independent tax research group” -- particularly when it made sure to identify my blog post as having appeared on the web site of “a liberal group.” I ask that this imbalance be corrected in the article, and that Politifact explain how it came to provide such favorable treatment to a conservative organization.
Politifact’s claim that it is a lie to say Republicans voted to “end Medicare” rests on the contention that because something called “Medicare” would continue to exist, and continue to have something to do with senior citizens, the program has not “ended,” even though it is entirely different from Medicare as it has always existed. I’d love to see Politifact reconcile that position with its “Mostly True” ruling on Tommy Thompson’s boast that as Governor of Wisconsin he “ended welfare”:
Thompson declared that as governor, "we ended welfare." His W-2 program didn’t eliminate every program that might be considered a handout. But it did end the entitlement program most commonly known as welfare, replacing it with one that requires nearly all recipients to work for their benefits.
We rate Thompson’s statement Mostly True.
Thompsons’s claim is actually far less true than the “end Medicare” statement Politifact called Lie of the Year. That’s because unlike Medicare, Welfare isn’t a single, specific government program; it’s a broad colloquialism that has been applied to programs like AFDC and food stamps. Saying Thompson “ended Welfare” because he ended AFDC is like saying Republicans ended health care for senior citizens because they ended Medicare: It conflates a specific program with a broad concept.
In short, Politifact has it backwards: Thompson’s claim is a far greater falsehood than the statement that Republicans voted to “end Medicare.” At the very least, it’s hard to see how you can reconcile Politifact’s two rulings.