Thursday, December 22, 2011

PolitiFact Earns Its Own "Pants on Fire"

There was a time not long ago that PolitiFact, the fact-checking project initiated by the St. Petersburg Times, was widely and universally acclaimed. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and might well have deserved it. But that was back in those halcyon days when politicians of both parties at least pretended to care about the truth.

Since then, three things have happened. I suspect they’re not unrelated, although teasing out the causal links is a little more than my feeble brain can handle, at least at present.

• 1. News sources have become increasingly polarized—not partisan, necessarily, but locked into a narrative that is seldom shaken even with facts. The corollary to this point is that an increasing number of Americans get their news from sources that make only token attempts at objectivity (cough… FoxNews… cough).

• 2. Largely because of the Tea Party—the largest ever assemblage of misinformed knuckle-draggers—the lunatic fringe of the Right has become mainstream in the GOP. This isn’t to say that the left is devoid of loonies, but they still tend to be thought of as outsiders. There is no liberal counterpart to Glenn Beck, to Michele Bachmann, to Louis Gohmert. Are there progressives that stupid and that crazy? Sure. But they don’t get the platforms of their right-wing brethren.

• 3. It’s become Amateur Hour at PolitiFact. Despite great bluster and pseudo-solemnity from the PF muckety-mucks, it is certainly true that they apply different standards to different claims. I talked about this phenomenon in June, wondering “when PolitiFact got into the implications business. They sometimes consider a statement based on its literal truth, sometimes (apparently) on what someone might think it implies. Sometimes they give a speaker the benefit of the doubt as to what s/he might have meant….”

In April, I somewhat presciently called attention to what I called a “particularly inept” analysis of claims that the Paul Ryan budget plan would “eliminate Medicare.”

Why “prescient,” you ask? Well, the incompetent, misleading, illogical pronouncement that Democratic claims about the Ryan plan merited a “Pants on Fire” rating (to be fair, the ads weren’t exactly above reproach) served as the foundation for declaring those Democratic assertions the “Lie of the Year” for 2011. I call Bullshit.

There are several parts to this story. Let’s start with the original analysis itself. PolitiFact “rulings” (yes, that’s their term for it—they take themselves, if not their work, very seriously) tend to be anonymous. This one is. The author, whoever he or she may be, grants that the Ryan plan would be “a huge change” and “a dramatic change of course,” and that “seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law.” But s/he takes issue with the characterization of “ending” Medicare, calling it “a major exaggeration.” This is interesting terminology, by the way, because even if true this wouldn’t qualify for “Pants on Fire” status, let alone “Lie of the Year.”

The PF Pundit (let’s call him/her something non-gender specific, like “Moe,” which could be short for Maurice or Maureen, and has the advantage of identifying the writer as a Stooge… no offense to my friend Mo—no “e”—who is anything but stupid) sniffs that “Democrats, including Obama, have said the plan would end Medicare ‘as we know it,’ a critical qualifier. But the 30-second ad from the DCCC makes a sweeping claim without that important qualifier.” So we’re basing the decision for Lie of the Year not on an actual lie repeated ad nauseum (e.g., “The economic stimulus created ‘zero jobs.’”).

No, Moe—and Moe’s masters—decided that a single, arguably accurate, statement in a single web ad ought to be the centerpiece for our collective indignation. (Be it noted, other Democrats have echoed the claim, but nowhere near to the extent of all the “failed stimulus” crap that passes for objective analysis in the corporate media. And the original article takes issue only with a single web ad.) Let’s face it, if the concession that Democrats in general aren’t really making the “exaggerated” claim isn’t enough, then the fact that under the Ryan plan Medicare would pay for only 32% of seniors’ health-care costs by 2030 (and get worse from there) isn’t going to matter to ol’ Moe. By the way, the link I provided here isn’t to some commie pinko website; it’s to the official report of the Congressional Budget Office.

Moe then whinges that the DCCC ad in question “claims that participants would have to find $12,500 to pay for Medicare.” Two points. First, Moe, if you’re going to get all pissy about minor details of accuracy, you might notice that the ad says “health care,” not Medicare. The Dems are saying the GOP is ending Medicare, remember? Really, Moe, try to keep up. Secondly, the claim is absolutely, unequivocally, factually true. Nowhere in the ad is there any claim that seniors will have to spend $12,500 more. If I’m contemplating buying a new house and tell my friend that I’m worried about finding $1700 a month in mortgage payments, I shouldn’t have to footnote my remarks by saying that I’m already paying half of that. Moe’s argument is unadulterated bovine feces.

Ah, but Moe isn’t done: “Still another problem with the ad involves who’s immediately affected by the Republican proposal. In one scene, the ad shows a senior citizen pushing a walker behind a lawn mower. A teenager looking on eats an apple and says, ‘You missed a spot.’ In reality, people 55 and older won’t see changes under the Ryan plan.” Seriously, Moe? That’s what you’ve got? Perhaps, just perhaps, the scene in the ad is intended to take place in a (thank God) fictional future… when people a couple of years younger than I (my wife, for example) are trying to figure out how to stay alive because Paul Ryan won’t tax his fatcat friends at the rate they paid under the sainted Reagan. Indeed, the entire ad can be taken as representing a “what would happen if…” scenario. No one believes the spot represents a literal representation of the present. I understand, Moe, that you can’t comprehend that line of reasoning. It requires the barest sliver of imagination, a quality that you and your masters evidently lack. Sorry, hallucinations don’t count.

Finally, there’s the utterly ridiculous claim that when the Republicans voted to end Medicare (as we know it), they didn’t really vote to end Medicare because it was a non-binding resolution. Moe, you crack me up. Seriously, that one idiot pseudo-journalist can go through this many contortions to justify an utterly absurd conclusion is really amusing. Or at least it would be if your organization didn’t have a little residual credibility: enough so that someone somewhere might think you have the integrity of snake-oil salesmen and/or intellectual superiority to a watermelon. We get it, they didn’t end Medicare. But that little dog and pony show they staged sure as hell included a vote on “a budget” (your description, Moe, not mine), and they sure as hell did vote as pretty little lockstep drones to radically reduce medical coverage for people who have been paying taxes for years.

Had it been a “real vote,” and been shot down in the Senate or vetoed by a President who’s pretty inept but not that brain-meltingly stupid, the pragmatic effect would have been precisely the same. Not sure if that would have satisfied Moe, however. And this, of course, is only the first salvo in the Republicans’ attacks on everyone not rich enough, scared enough, or stupid enough to sign on to their greed- and paranoia-induced assault on every social program that doesn’t benefit primarily those who don’t need the help.

Fast forward a few months. PolitiFact, as usual, announces its “Lie of the Year” voting. For at least two years in a row, the site’s viewers and editors/staff selected the same contender. In 2009, it was “Death panels,” capturing an impressive 61% of the vote against some pretty good competition (the birthers, for example). Last year, the readers and editors alike selected “A government takeover of health care,” with 44% of the readers’ votes, again against some pretty good whoppers (my personal favorite, that “94 percent of small businesses will face higher taxes under the Democrats' plan”—the actual number is under 3%—came in fourth).

This year’s finalists, in addition to the eventual winner:
• “President Obama ‘went around the world and apologized for America.’”

• “The Obama administration's review of obsolete regulations was ‘unprecedented.’”

• “The vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation.”

• “Abortion services are ‘well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.’” [this absurd claim by Jon Kyl was the actual subject of my April piece, linked above; this one, by the way, got my vote]

• “Because of more restrictive voting laws, Republicans ‘want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.’”

• “Scientists are ‘questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. … (It is) more and more being put into question.’”

• “Congressional Republicans have introduced dozens of bills on social issues and other topics, but ‘zero on job creation.’”

• “The economic stimulus created ‘zero jobs.’” [You didn’t think I’d pulled that example I used earlier out of thin air, did you, Gentle Reader?]

• “I didn't raise taxes once.” (President Obama)
A decent enough list, although some are merely poor choices of phrasing, others are pretty much insignificant, and others are so preposterous that no rational person would believe them (which after all, is what keeps Michele Bachmann at least marginally amusing instead of terrifying).

Two things out of the ordinary happened when the finalists were announced. First, the leftie blogosphere lit up about the stupidity of including a “100% True” statement as a contender for “Lie of the Year.” CrooksandLiars’ Susie Madrak wrote, “Capping costs to beneficiaries, 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.” In other words, “ending Medicare” isn’t far off the mark. At the very least, it falls under the category of unexceptional political hyperbole which, for example, declares the current President a socialist.

Secondly, Paul Ryan started soliciting supporters to stuff the ballot box, as it were, encouraging them to “Help me fight the lies, falsehoods, and attacks of the Left by casting a vote to show the Democrat’s lie that Republicans voted to ‘end Medicare’ is the worst political lie of 2011.”

Despite this anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) maneuver, however, the actual readers of PolitiFact prevailed, and the “killing Medicare” claim came in only third, behind the “zero jobs” claim and the ridiculous distortion of Planned Parenthood’s priorities. So far, so good.

But, as you know, the editors over-rode the readers. This is troubling for a variety of reasons, not least because Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan (they have names!) admit that even conservative think-tankers like Norman Ornstein agree that a slight tweak to the language of a handful of progressives would satisfy even him. Adair and Holan proceed to note that
At times, Democrats and liberal groups were careful to characterize the Republican plan more accurately. Another claim in the ad from the Agenda Project said the plan would “privatize” Medicare, which received a Mostly True rating from PolitiFact. 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.”
In other words, even though more incendiary language has been employed, the de facto leader of Democrats wasn’t the one to do so.

Ah, but, quoth the PF morons, “more often, Democrats and liberals overreached.” More often? Evidence, please. You’re supposed to be freaking journalists. If your claim is true, back it up. If it isn’t, then, to steal a line I saw posted on Facebook today, off is the general direction in which I wish you would fuck. Adair and Holan then proceed to run through the same tired and unconvincing litany employed by our friend Moe in the original post. Oh, and they point out that other self-appointed incompetents “fact checkers” agree with them. Trouble is, they’re still wrong.

Steve Benen sums up the argument this way:
I’ve been trying to think of the best analogy for this. How about this one: imagine someone owns a Ferrari. It’s expensive and drives beautifully, and the owner desperately wants to keep his car intact. Now imagine I took the car away, removed the metallic badge off the trunk that says “Ferrari,” I stuck it on a golf cart, and I handed the owner the keys.

“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.

“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”

By PolitiFact’s reasoning, I haven’t actually replaced the car — and if you disagree, you’re a pants-on-fire liar.
Not bad. Medicare is more of a Toyota, and the Ryan plan a Yugo for the price of a Cadillac, but the point is still pretty clear.

Interestingly, Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard agrees:
Truthfully, the notion that Paul Ryan's plan will “end Medicare as we know it” is a fair assessment. The idea it flatly “ends Medicare” might be a bit too reductive, as there will still obviously be a federal program to help seniors get medical coverage and those currently over a certain age will be guaranteed to get Medicare as we know it. But broadly, I don't think it's a lie. In fact, “ending Medicare as we know it” is a good thing. The program is over $30 trillion in debt. Any politician who tells you that that they can preserve the program as it is and still get costs under control is probably lying to you. And I think Paul Ryan has basically been open about the fact that the status quo in Medicare must change.
See what he did, there? He calls the Dems’ claim “a bit too reductive,” then argues why Medicare as we know it should end. We can agree or disagree with his opinion (I personally think there should be some tightening of the belt in Medicare, but it is hardly the first place I’d go to reduce the federal deficit), but it is honest and thoughtful: two things PolitiFact is not.

The howling on the left, therefore, may be a trifle overwrought, but it is not without legitimacy. Paul Krugman, who I venture to say knows more about economic structures than Adair, Holan, Moe and me combined, agrees. He also writes that:
... the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’—and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.
I’m not as ready as Mr. Krugman to ascribe motives to PolitiFact’s inane choice. There’s nothing inherently political about their decision—utterly unjustified, yes, but not necessarily political. Fact is, they’re just inept. An earlier piece by Hemingway, written just before instead of just after PolitiFact’s big announcement, demonstrates pretty clearly that they’re just as inept at criticizing the right as they are the left.

PolitiFact’s problem is that they started to believe their own press clippings. They got lazy, smug, and arrogant. They substituted sloth for research, acquiescence for skepticism, petulant defensiveness for argumentation. They aren’t fact-checkers at all—fact-checkers would understand that the denotative and connotative accuracy of a statement are often radically different. They would understand that an argument can be literally true but ultimately irrelevant: but that doesn’t make it anything less than true. They would understand that there’s a continuum between fact and opinion, and that the latter is almost always going to come into play: and the way to deal with that is to acknowledge it rather than pretend to a fallacious pseudo-objectivity. They would, in short, not be PolitiFact.

Did PolitiFact render themselves “useless and irrelevant”? Yes. But that, of course, is only my opinion.

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