Politifact, the St.Petersburg Times fact-checking organization, has unveiled its annual "lie of the year" for 2011: the statement that "Republicans voted to end Medicare." This designation is deeply flawed, given that the assertion that "Republicans voted to end Medicare" is arguably a true statement.
But that isn't all that was wrong with Politifact's decision. Politifact's Editor Bill Adair wrote an editor's note trying to explain why Politifact's editors did not choose something else as their "lie of the year." And the explanation rings hollow.
Regarding the false claim that the stimulus created "zero jobs" (the winner in Politifact's reader poll), Politifact stated that "it was more a falsehood from last year." Similarly, regarding the false claim that Obama has traveled the world and "apologized for America," Adair noted that Romney says this repeatedly but claimed that "it wasn't picked up much by other candidates and didn't reach critical mass."
When asked about his explanation about the "zero jobs" lie by Media Matters' Joe Strupp, Adair said that the Lie of the Year "is a subjective decision of Politifact editors. ... [I]t's not based on data points."
Given how often the lies about the stimulus and the Obama apology tour were repeated by conservatives, it may have been helpful for Politifact to look at "data points" rather than just their editors' "subjective" sense of how widespread the lie was.
From the December 21 edition of Fox News' America Live
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In naming as its 2011 "Lie of the Year" a statement that is, at worst, arguably true, Politifact has inadvertently said more about itself and the media's failure to adequately combat the lies and deception that act as a cancer on American democracy.
Politifact's assertion that it is a lie to say "Republicans voted to end Medicare" -- and that this is the most important lie of the year -- suffers from some basic flaws: Republicans did, in fact, vote to end Medicare; and Politifact overlooked actual lies that have had and continue to have a profound and debilitating effect on the nation's attempts to come out of lingering economic troubles.
Politifact's "Lie of the Year" announcement provides little in the way of actual evidence that the claim is a lie, instead referring readers to previous efforts for its substantive case, such as it is. The weakness of Politifact's ruling that the House GOP budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not "end Medicare" can be seen in its April 20, 2011, explanation:
One of the its major features is dramatically restructuring Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for those 65 and older. Right now, Medicare pays doctors and hospitals set fees for the care beneficiaries receive. [...] In 2022 [under the GOP plan] new beneficiaries would receive "premium support," which means they would buy plans from private insurance companies with financial assistance from the government. [...]the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. [...] Both Republicans and Democrats would no doubt agree that Ryan's plan for Medicare is a dramatic change of course. But we don't agree with the ad's contention that the proposal ends Medicare.
So, according to Politifact, the House Republican plan constitutes a "dramatic restructuring" of Medicare, a "huge change to the current program," and a "dramatic change of course" by ending the direct payment of fees for service and replacing it with a voucher program. In its "Lie of the Year" write-up, Politifact again concedes the GOP plan "dramatically changed the program [for people currently under age 55] by privatizing it and providing government subsidies." That's ending Medicare, just as replacing the armed services with government vouchers for private bodyguards would be ending the U.S. military. As Igor Volsky wrote earlier this month, "closing the traditional fee-for-service program, and forcing seniors to enroll in new private coverage, ends Medicare by eliminating everything that has defined the program for the last 46 years."
But Politifact concluded in April that "we don't agree [...] that the proposal ends Medicare." That should set off some alarm bells: As fact-checks go, "we don't agree" is remarkably weak tea. As justification for naming something the "Lie of the Year," it's an embarrassment.
Paul Krugman and Dan Kennedy and Steve Benen and Jonathan Cohn and Jonathan Chait and Matthew Yglesias and David Weigel, among countless others, have debunked Politifact's ruling, which holds that as long as something called "Medicare" has something to do with health care for the elderly, it's a lie to say the program has ended, no matter how "dramatic" the "change of course" has been. Even Robert VerBruggen of the conservative National Review has written that Politifact "does not make a good case" and that the Democratic claim does not "rise to the level of 'lie,' much less 'Lie of the Year.'"
The incoherence of Politifact's ruling is driven home by its repeated statements that the claim "end Medicare as we know it" is significantly different from -- and more justifiable than -- the statement "end Medicare." This is nonsensical hair-splitting. Medicare isn't a broad concept; it's a specific, concrete program. Ending it "as we know it" is ending it. Otherwise, ending it would require ending it as we don't know it, which would be a neat trick. (Revealingly, Politifact has been confused by their own hair-splitting: After having declared "as we know it" a crucial qualifier on multiple occasions, they shifted course and claimed "the GOP proposal does not 'end Medicare as we know it.'")
As part of the network's ongoing attempt to defend the richest Americans from paying even a penny more in taxes, Fox personalities have described Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) proposed surtax on the rich as "class warfare." At the same time, Fox is hyping Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which would raise taxes on poor and middle-income families.
Fox & Friends promoted a GOP-backed effort to repeal sections of a 2007 law setting efficiency standards for light bulbs, falsely suggesting that the law bans incandescent bulbs and featuring on-screen screen text that stated: "Don't touch our bulbs!" In fact, the law only restricts the sale of inefficient incandescent light bulbs, not all incandescent bulbs, as Fox & Friends suggested.
The Urban Institute recently published a report contradicting the claim often pushed by Fox News that the health care reform law will "kill jobs." But Fox's Bill Hemmer nevertheless used the institute's report to attack health care reform and its "effect on jobs."
Two recent PolitiFact assessments of statements about Wisconsin public workers are badly flawed -- both in ways that lend support to critics of public workers and unions.
On Sunday, PolitiFact awarded a dubious "True" rating to George Will's statement that Wisconsin public employees would be better off than their private sector counterparts even after Governor Scott Walker's proposed benefit cuts. Here's PolitiFact's conclusion:
[I]t's important to consider an employee's total package of wages and benefits when comparing public and private sector compensation. But that's not the issue before us here. Will clearly stated that he was talking about just the benefits side of the equation. And with regard to the changes Walker has proposed -- requiring greater employee contributions to pension and health care -- Will is right that they would still leave public employees "better off" than those in the private sector. We rate Will's comment True.
So, PolitiFact's True rating is based on the belief that "Will clearly stated that he was talking about just the benefits side of the equation." But he didn't. Here's Will's statement, as quoted by PolitiFact:
Will responded, "Donna, what you call the grassroots is a tiny minority of this tiny minority of Wisconsin people who work for the government. Three hundred thousand public employees in Wisconsin went to work -- while the teachers were clutching their little signs that say it's all about the kids, they're abandoning their classrooms, lying to their supervisors, saying they were sick, and going off to protest in defense of perquisites, which if the governor cuts them as much as he plans to do, would still leave them better off than their private sector" counterparts.
Will said that cutting state workers "perquisites … would still leave them better off than their private sector" counterparts. The simplest reading of that sentence is that the word "them" refers to workers, not perquisites. In which case, Will was not "talking about just the benefits side of the equation" -- he was saying even if the benefits are cut, the workers will be better off than their counterparts. You can, I suppose, argue that the word "them" referred to "perquisites," though the word "they" had twice been used to refer to teachers in the same sentence, and though it would be odd for a wordsmith of Will's calibre to describe "perquisites" as "better off." You can argue that was Will's intent -- but it certainly isn't "clear," as PolitiFact claims.
So, basically, the entire premise of PolitiFact's assessment is flawed. There's little reason to reason to give Will the benefit of the doubt that he was referring to how well off workers are in terms of benefits only. And there's no reason to think he was "clearly" doing so. Finally, even if he was doing so, he was being misleading -- as PolitiFact notes, "[I]t's important to consider an employee's total package of wages and benefits when comparing public and private sector compensation." In so noting, PolitiFact refers to a previous fact-check by its Wisconsin bureau, which indicates that when considering both wages and benefits, state employees make less than private sector counterparts.
That PolitiFact Wisconsin entry was deeply flawed, too -- and also in a way that benefited critics of unions. PolitiFact Wisconsin awarded an entirely unjustified "false" rating to Wisconsin AFT president Bryan Kennedy's statement that state workers earn less than comparable private sector employees. We needn't go into much detail here -- a simple glance at PolitiFact's conclusion is enough to see that it is not justified:
In sum, Kennedy did not provide evidence that supports his claim, which itself provides only a partial look at the debate. If any more evidence emerges, we'll review it. In the meantime, we rate Kennedy's claim False.
That paragraph makes clear that, at worst, Politifact should declare Kennedy's claim unproven, not "false." Indeed, by PolitiFact's standards, its assessment of Kennedy's statement is itself false. See, PolitiFact did not prove its claim, therefore -- by PolitiFact's logic -- its claim is false. But I reject PolitiFact's flawed logic, so I won't declare it's assessment "false." Just unjustified.
But that isn't the only flaw in PolitiFact's reasoning. Let's take a look at Kennedy's statement, as presented by PolitiFact:
On the "Upfront with Mike Gousha" public affairs program, Gousha asked Kennedy if state employee unions "have a perception problem with the general public."
"Well, I think that there's been talking points used by those who don't like government to continually bash us and make us look as if we're the haves and we're really not," Kennedy replied during the Dec. 5, 2010 show.
"If you look across the board, we're averaging about 8 percent less than if we all worked in the private sector. Some of our people make half or a third as much as they could make if they worked in the private sector."
Now, here's PolitiFact's summary of Kennedy's statement and the supporting evidence he provided PolitiFact:
He said Wisconsin state employees are "averaging about 8 percent less" in pay than if they worked in the private sector. But the figure he relied on was from a national study that combined pay and benefits.
Notice that the words "in pay" aren't in quotes? That's because Kennedy didn't say them. PolitiFact is hitting Kennedy for supporting a specific comment about "pay" by providing information relating to "pay and benefits" -- but Kennedy's statement did not specify that he was referring only to pay. PolitiFact just inserted that on its own. Here, let's look back at the Kennedy statement in question, as quoted by PolitiFact:
"If you look across the board, we're averaging about 8 percent less than if we all worked in the private sector."
See? He didn't specify "pay" as opposed to "pay and benefits."
Finally, PolitiFact complains that though Kennedy provided a study showing that state workers make 7.6 percent less in pay and benefits than comparable private sector employees, and 11 percent less in pay alone, the study was national in scope. Ok… but Kennedy never said the 8 percent figure referred to Wisconsin state employees alone, rather than national figures for state employees.
In short: PolitiFact altered Kennedy's actual statement, pretending he was more specific than he actually was. Then it completely failed to disprove even that altered statement. And then it declared the altered statement to be false, based on an apparent belief that "unproven" and "false" are synonymous.
Note also that both PolitiFact pieces baselessly narrowed the scope of discussion to a portion of compensation rather than total compensation, even though it acknowledges that it is more useful to compare total compensation, and even though it wasn't clear in either case that the statement being fact-checked referred to only a portion of compensation. In other words, PolitiFact assessed less relevent claims than the ones actually made. Weird.
Fox News promoted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's claim that the federal government has failed to "do its job" on border security without mentioning that border security efforts have increased measurably under President Obama: Deportations, drug seizures, and the number of Border Patrol agents have all increased.
I've written in the past about the media's tendency to behave as though the top tax bracket is the only one that matters when discussing tax policy. PolitiFact's new round-up of Reagan-related fact-checks links a perfect example I missed a the time: A September 20, 2010 piece about President Obama's statement that "Our tax rates are lower now than they were under Ronald Reagan," the validity of which PolitiFact assessed by looking only at top marginal rates (and getting the data wrong in the process.)
We thought that claim was worth a run through the Truth-O-Meter.
The most obvious way to make the comparison is to use income tax rates paid by people in various tax brackets. Due to the complexity of comparing a dozen or more income ranges that each need to be adjusted for inflation, economists most frequently compare just the top rate.
As PolitiFact noted, the "most obvious" way to compare tax rates now versus tax rates under Ronald Reagan "is to use income tax rates paid by people in various tax brackets." But PolitiFact didn't do that. It used income tax rates paid by people in one tax bracket: The highest. And its approach was a factual, as well as conceptual, train-wreck:
Today, the top income tax rate is 35 percent, starting at $186,825 for individuals and $373,650 for couples.
In 1981, Reagan's first year, the top tax rate was 70 percent, hitting individuals earning $107,100 and couples earning $215,400. The top rate dropped immediately to 50 percent in 1982 and stayed there through 1986. In 1987, the top rate fell again to 38.5 percent, and in 1988, it fell to 28 percent, kicking in at $113,300 for married individuals and $149,250 for married couples. (The 1988 incomes would be equivalent to $209,000 and $275,000 today.)
So, for one year of the Reagan presidency, the top rate was lower than it is now under Obama. For the other seven years, it was higher.
First off, let's note that PolitiFact was simply wrong about the tax rates. According to the Tax Foundation document it links, the current top rate doesn't kick in for individuals at $186,825, it kicks in at $373,650. The $186,825 threshold is for people who are married but filing separately. And in 1988, the 28 percent marginal rate applied to single people making more than $17,850 and married couples making at least $29,750 -- far lower than the threshold PolitiFact claimed. Again: I'm basing this on the same Tax Foundation document PolitiFact relied on. PolitiFact just read it wrong.
So PolitiFact's assertion that "the top rate was lower than it is now" is technically correct, but it's also a deeply absurd way to assess the overall tax picture. For single people in 1988, income above $17,850 was taxed at 28 percent. For single people in 2010, only income above $373,650 was taxed at 35 percent. Obviously, comparing a top rate that kicks in at $17,850 to a top rate that kicks in at $373,650 is pointless. But that's what PolitiFact did.
PolitiFact gets recent history wrong:
[W]e should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal.
Nonsense. Obama would not have "raised income tax rates" even had the compromise not occurred: The rates would have gone up in accordance with the tax law President Bush signed. Here, let's let PolitiFact explain, via a December 1, 2010 fact-check headlined "'Obama tax hikes'? Just as easily call them the Bush tax hikes":
The tax rates are expiring on Jan. 1, 2011, because of the way they were created in the first place. Back in 2001 and again in 2003, Republicans used a process known as reconciliation that only requires 50 votes to pass the Bush tax cuts. ...
But there are a number of rules that govern reconciliation, and one of those rules says that you can't include things that affect the budget for more than 10 years. That's why the tax cuts are expiring. Republicans didn't have the 60 votes they needed in the Senate to make the tax cuts permanent.
We should point out that the 2001 reconciliation bill passed in the Senate with some Democratic support, 58-33. In 2003, the vote was closer, 50-50, with then vice president Dick Cheney breaking the tie.
"Republicans very deliberately engineered this set of tax cuts to expire after 10 years," said Norman Ornstein, a long-time observer of Congress and politics and a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "They did it for utterly political reasons."
And on January 1, PolitiFact explained: "The tax rates, passed during President George W. Bush's administration, had an end-of-the-year expiration date and were set to go up in 2011 unless they were extended."
So when PolitiFact now says that absent the Obama-GOP compromise last December, Obama would have "raised income taxes," that's nonsense. He wouldn't have "raised income taxes," he would have done nothing. The tax rates would have changed as scheduled, in accordance with the provisions of the law Bush signed. PolitiFact knows that.
And the lack of precision matters -- a lot. It fundamentally skews the debate in favor of lower taxes and, therefore (take your pick) higher deficits or deep cuts in government services, as I've previously explained:
If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them "temporary" -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways -- but that doesn't mean the media should go along.
In addition to extending the Bush tax cuts, last December's tax deal reduced payroll taxes for a year. By the "logic" used by PolitiFact and other media to claim that allowing the scheduled expiration of tax cuts constitutes raising taxes, if the President and Congress do not agree to extend that payroll tax cut, they will be actively raising taxes. But that's obviously nonsense: The payroll tax reduction was always discussed as a temporary, year-long measure. Labeling everyone who allows it to expire as planned a tax-raiser would be false and badly distort public policy debates. The same is true of the Bush tax cuts.
Note, by the way, that PolitiFact seems to be laying the groundwork for just such a distorted debate over the payroll tax. Here's the full paragraph I excerpted at the beginning of this post:
Before we rule on this item, though, we should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal. In exchange, he gained a a 2 percent reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. When you combine that with small tax cuts that were part of the economic stimulus, most taxpayers have seen reduced rates under Obama's administration.
No. Obama gained a temporary reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. PolitiFact left out the word temporary -- an omission that will come in handy when people start accusing people who want to allow them to expire of wanting to raise taxes.
We've already seen numerous examples of the Washington Post printing the false "death panel" claim about health care reform without noting its falsity. The "death panels" lie, as you may remember, was so pernicious PolitiFact named it "Lie of the Year" for 2009. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the Post from frequently repeating the claim that health care reform would result in "death panels" -- and didn't inspire the Post to ensure that it always corrected the falsehood.
PolitiFact's 2010 "Lie of the Year" was the claim that health care reform constitutes a government takeover of heath care. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler notes: "This snappy talking point is used by Republicans repeatedly to bash Obama's crowing [sic] legislative achievement, but it is simply not true. In fact, PolitiFact.com labeled this claim the 2010 'lie of the year,' but that has not stopped lawmakers from making this claim."
Nor has it stopped Washington Post bloggers from making this claim. Here's Jay Sekulow, the Post's Religious Right Now blogger:
ObamaCare is bad for the economy. The federal government is taking control of what some have estimated to account for as much as 1/6 of the economy while simultaneously creating yet another entitlement program doomed to failure.
The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler rightly criticizes politicians for telling the "Lie of the Year." It would be nice if the Post would hold its own personnel to the same standard.
If you come across a PolitiFact "Truth-O-Meter" entry that begins like this …
… you'd probably interpret that as meaning that the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which isn't at Ground Zero) is a mosque, right? After all, if the claim that it is "not a mosque" is "False," then it makes sense to assume that it is a mosque.
But if you kept reading for nearly two dozen paragraphs, you'd learn that PolitiFact "agree[s] with those who say it's imprecise to simply refer to the New York project as a mosque."
The problem (as I've written before) is that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" gimmick and its framing sometimes obscure the truth rather than illuminating it. In this case, PolitiFact would have better served its readers by simply presenting the facts of the controversy, rather than framing the piece as a fact-check of Al Hunt's comment and leading with the "False" rating on its "Truth-O-Meter." Had it done so, it could have gone with a headline and lede that did not create an impression that PolitiFact itself finds "imprecise."
Meanwhile, take a look at PolitiFact's assessment of the claim that the "Ground Zero Mosque" is at Ground Zero:
Barely True? No! It's false! Don't take my word for it; here's PolitiFact (again, this passage is buried all the way at the end):
Again, we realize many politicians and media figures are using the phrase the "Ground Zero Mosque" -- or as Lazio did, "a mosque at Ground Zero" -- as shorthand to describe the controversial project. It's nearby -- close enough to carry symbolic value to those who oppose it, and even to those proposing the project. But we think those characterizations often give the misimpression that the project is either on the old World Trade Center site or immediately next to it. And that's not right. And so we rate the claim Barely True. [Emphasis added]
It's "not right" -- and so PolitiFact rates it "Barely True"? That simply does not make sense. And, again, it's the result of PolitiFact's insistence on using a "Truth-O-Meter" gimmick with arbitrary and confusing labels. And of an apparent inconsistency in how rigidly it applies those labels.
Rush Limbaugh claimed the country hasn't "had nine percent unemployment for two years consecutively since the 1930s," falsely suggesting that this is currently the case. In fact, the unemployment rate has exceeded nine percent for 14 months, a period which was exceeded in the 1980s under President Reagan.