Politifact Chose the Vice of the Year but They Called it a Lie. That was Dumb.

Dec.
22

You can get mad at your friends, right? I mean… that’s allowed. I am mad at my friends at Politifact because I believe in what they are doing, I think it’s important work, I’ve even helped them do it in a couple of small ways, and now they’ve gone and made it impossible for me to defend them when they’re getting slammed.

By choosing as its lie of the year “Republicans voted to end Medicare,” Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie. Big mistake. They hurt the Politifact project by doing that. I wish they hadn’t.

The reason I think they were wrong is not that I see the statement, “Republicans voted to end Medicare” as indisputably true. It’s more the opposite: this is a very disputable claim. Jonathan Chait’s analysis matches my own:

The Republican budget would very dramatically change Medicare. The plan would turn a single-payer system into vouchers for private insurance, and the value of those vouchers would fall steadily behind the cost of that insurance, so that within a relatively short time it would cover only a small fraction of the cost of insurance.

Is that “ending Medicare?” Well, it’s a matter of opinion. At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.

Does the Republican plan indeed end Medicare? I would argue yes. But it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact. And the whole problem with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” is that it doesn’t grasp this distinction

Right. The Economist pointed out another problem, which is that Lie of the Year says something about an intention to deceive. “The finalists are presented as lies rather than inaccurate statements or misinterpretations.”

This is an important distinction because, with regard to the Medicare claim, both sides could well be sincere: Democrats believe Republicans are trying to kill Medicare, and Republicans believe they aren’t. And while both sides have a political interest—senior citizens are diligent voters—let’s posit that there are Republicans who sincerely believe the best way to steward the country, and to guarantee some health care to the future elderly, is to reform the system to bring down entitlement costs. In other words, if insincerity or deliberate deception is a defining feature of a lie, then it may be that neither side is lying, regardless of who is correct.

It’s fair for Politifact to point out that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” isn’t as accurate as it could be. It’s fair to observe that adding a qualifier like, “Republicans voted to end Medicare as we’ve known it…” makes it more kosher. It’s fair to criticize those Democrats who have spoken less precisely than they could have about the change that Congressman Paul Ryan proposed. It’s fair to point to the inglorious history of scaring senior citizens rather than solving real problems. And it’s fair to hold up as virtuous more cautious statements, as Politifact did here:

President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal “would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.”

My verdict: I don’t think Politifact chose a lie of the year in 2011. Their sights were set on something different, and they erred by calling it what they called it. They wanted to point out how far from virtuous the behavior of some Democrats was in reaction to the Ryan plan. They were standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate. They were saying: Be more careful! Because if you are not careful, you can scare people unnecessarily. Don’t go for the easy line! Be strict with yourself! Stay virtuous…

But the object of their criticism wasn’t a lie, it was a vice. They chose the vice of the year, and they called it a lie, which violates one of the ideas Politifact stands for: if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion itself becomes impossible.

6 Comments

  1. Mark Paul says:

    You still give PolitiFact too much credit, Jay.

    You write that it’s a “vice” to say that the Ryan plan would “end Medicare.” But as I’ve written elsewhere, Republicans and Democrats and the press alike routinely use exactly the same language to describe a similar defined-benefit-to-defined-contribution policy shift, and no one even raises a eyebrow, let alone sees it as a “vice.” These “vice” cops are being very selective (and ideological) about which johns to collar.

    My other problem is that what you defend here—”standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate”—seems to me a close cousin to the View from Nowhere.

    As journalists and writers, we have a duty to our readers to practice “scrupulous debate”: to look broadly; to attend to and verify detail; and to honor complexity. As P.J. O’Rourke says, it’s our job to turn on the lights and make the cockroaches scurry. It’s somebody else’s job to stomp on them.

    But part of doing our job requires recognizing that the stomping is a more complicated ethical business. In politics the ethic of “scrupulous debate” often and necessarily collides with the ethic of responsibility. Look at my imagining of a PolitiFact-style hit on Patrick Henry in 1775 and judge whether standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate doesn’t, in practice, amount to trying to delegitimize political speech.

    • I agree with you 100% Mark. The point you make about PolitiFact in your own post–and the related point you make about ProPublica’s incompetence re reporting on California redistricting–simply can’t be made often enough.

      The problem isn’t BAD “objective reporting”, it’s the very CONCEPT of unreflective “objective reporting” that fails to take seriously Jay’s critique of the “view from nowhere”.

      I hope Jay gives this further thought.

  2. The Republican rhetoric of ending medicare seems to be an appeal to old fashioned fiscal conservatives who feel saddled with the burden of taking care of the great unwashed masses. But the Republican candidates rarely frame it as such, instead couching it in sufficiently ambiguous jingoistic terms that they can’t be held to account.

  3. jayackroyd says:

    Ah Jay, it’s even more complicated than you’ve described here. Stuart Zechman and I talked about last Thursday,and then chatted with Chris Anderson (CW Anderson, @heychanders) immediately afterward.

    The first problem is that it’s hard to justify the characterization of the Path to Prosperity’s Medicare policy as a “voucher” with characterizing Henry Aaron and R D Reischauer’s premium support program in the same way. That is, the idea of premium support (government subsidizing premium payments) is meant to be a contrast, a replacement for vouchers (government sending out an insurance coupon with a certain value).

    The difference between PPI proposals for premium support for Medicare, following in line with Aaron’s proposals and Ryan’s is in the way the support payments grow over time. Ryan’s index is intended to be less generous, to not reflect expected increases in health care costs. But that doesn’t make it a voucher.

    So the real problem is that politifact isn’t really doing its job, in Chris’s words, not unpacking the story to find what’s true and what’s false. If they were to do so they might well add some clarity to a debate that is being purposely obfuscated by the Dem centrists who want to see premium support implemented in the Medicare program, and by the Republicans who want to turn the Medicare into a welfare program.

    Instead, Politifact decided to validate these attempts at obfuscation opacity in the public debate over these issues by treating an ambiguous statement as something with a clear truth-value.

    IAC, Adair’s retreat immediately to “both sides hate us, therefore we’re golden, right down the middle, objective, fair and balanced” was very disappointing.

    Jay, if you get a chance to listen to that discussion, we do mention something you and Stuart spoke about, about the role of DC press as a promulgator of centrist messaging. I think this is one instance, where ezra, yglesias, greg sargent et alia have transmitted an inaccurate message about the GOP premium support plan being the same as a “voucher” in such a way that it became part of the sphere of consensus.

    The way Chris put it was to say that politifact upset the consensus applecart–that the beltway media had accepted and internalize the voucherize message, and they put it back into play.

  4. Harris Meyer says:

    Jay, I liked this piece generally, but I don’t understand why you call it a vice for the Democrats to legitimately warn about the Republicans’ radical plan to change Medicare into something unrecognizable. I think even you fell into the trap of bending over backward to be “fair and balanced.” Many Republicans have said many times over the years that Medicare never should have been created and that they would like to end it. What’s so difficult about this?