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.'” )
So as a fact-checking exercise, Politifact's “Lie of the Year” designation fails badly. But even if one were to stipulate that the underlying claim is false, it would still be a dubious selection as the most important lie of the year. Politifact, which describes “Lie of the Year” as “the most significant falsehood, the one that had the most impact on the political discourse,” has now awarded this designation three times. During the three years in question, the most pressing matter confronting the nation has been the persistently weak economy that has millions of Americans out of work and millions more struggling to stay afloat. Efforts to address this economic crisis have been stymied by countless economic falsehoods. But Politifact has yet to choose a lie about the economy as Lie of the Year -- even though one such lie won its 2011 readers' poll:
[T]the winner in our reader poll was the Republican claim that “zero jobs” were created by the economic stimulus.
The “Zero jobs” claim, which won the readers' poll with 24 percent of the vote, had been a popular Republican talking point that was uttered by everyone from Rick Perry to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But we concluded it was more a falsehood from last year, when there was more debate about the stimulus, than this year. Indeed, our first fact-check of that claim was in February 2010 -- nearly two years ago.
Note that Politifact doesn't claim that nobody is telling this lie anymore -- indeed, Politifact debunked it again just two months ago. So, at a time when the possibility of further -- badly needed -- economic stimulus is ruled out by nearly all politicians because of the efficacy of the lie that the 2009 stimulus failed to create jobs, Politifact doesn't think it qualifies as “Lie of the Year” because it's been told for too long? How does that make any sense? If anything, it speaks to the impact the lie has had, and continues to have.
This is the first time Politifact's “Lie of the Year” selection has differed from the winner of its reader's poll. Meanwhile, the organization has recently come under withering attack from conservatives who accuse it of being part of "the liberal media's latest attempt to control the discourse." And Rep. Paul Ryan engaged in a public campaign to influence Politifact's choice (in the process repeating claims Politifact has previously declared false.)
Might that have something to do with Politifact's decision to part with its readers for the first time -- and to avoid its third consecutive “Lie of the Year” that implicates conservatives? This wouldn't be the first time a news organization caved to conservative pressure or strove for a false “balance” that prioritizes criticizing both sides equally over taking a proportionate approach to falsehoods. (Nor would it be the first time such spinelessness served only to embolden conservatives who seek not to influence journalistic outlets but to destroy them.)
In an interview with Media Matters today, Adair denied that the “Lie of the Year” selection was motivated by conservative pressure or a desire for balance.
While Politifact has done some valuable work and will likely continue to do so, its 2011 “Lie of the Year” selection highlights the organization's weaknesses: A tendency towards false balance, an occasional lack of rigor and consistency, and a flawed concept that results in fact-checking differences of opinion and forcing falsehoods into confusing categories like “barely true” that often obscure more than they illuminate.
But it is the inevitable consequences of these failures that is the most important part. False balance has the effect of a thumb on the scale in favor of the less meritorious position. Treating a falsehood and the truth as though they are equivalent gives lies -- and the people who tell them -- an advantage in the marketplace of ideas. It encourages politicians who lie to continue to lie, and those who tell the truth to start lying. And it distorts, rather than clarifies, the public's understanding of key issues. Those are things an organization called that calls itself Politifact should avoid at all costs.