Dear Politifact, I'm Not Sure that "Lie" Means What You Think It Does

You might remember that earlier this year, House Republicans passed a version of Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” as their budget for 2011. In addition to its draconian cuts to a constellation of different social services, the GOP buget added a series of “reforms” to Medicare, which were presented as a means to “save” the program. In reality, Republicans had crafted a voucher program whose value was so low that, eventually, seniors would have to pay the bulk of their medical costs out of pocket. And while Republicans could credibly claim to have reduced Medicare spending with their reforms, it wasn’t through any mechanism that reduced the overall rate of health care spending in the economy. Rather, Republicans would “save” universal health insurance for seniors by dismantling it.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Democrats attacked Republicans for this, and portrayed the GOP as on a crusade to destroy Medicare and end universal health insurance for seniors. The response from Washington’s deficit-obsessed political establishment was swift; fact checking groups at The Washington Post and the Associated Press accused Democrats of waging a “Mediscare” campaign and unfairly maligning Republican policies. Among the fact-checkers leading the charge was Politifact, a Florida-based group that built its reputation during the 2008 presidential election.

Over the course of the year, Politifact accused Democrats and liberals of lying about Republican Medicare policies, despite the fact that independent analyses came to the same conclusion — GOP Medicare reforms would dismantle the program as we know it and replace it with something very different, while doing very little to reduce the long-term deficit. But because this something was still called “Medicare”, Politifact saw no reason to rethink their view that the Democratic message was a “pants on fire” lie.

With their “Lie of the Year” award, Politifact has doubled down on its view that Democrats were misleading the public with their Medicare accusations:

Republicans muscled a budget through the House of Representatives in April that they said would take an important step toward reducing the federal deficit. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the plan kept Medicare intact for people 55 or older, but dramatically changed the program for everyone else by privatizing it and providing government subsidies.

Democrats pounced. Just four days after the party-line vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a Web ad that said seniors will have to pay $12,500 more for health care “because Republicans voted to end Medicare.” […]

PolitiFact debunked the Medicare charge in nine separate fact-checks rated False or Pants on Fire, most often in attacks leveled against Republican House members.

Now, PolitiFact has chosen the Democrats’ claim as the 2011 Lie of the Year.

It’s hard to overstate how ridiculous this is. If I take your house, burn it down, but then say that it’s still “your house,” it’s not a lie for you to say that I burned down your house. Or, to borrow an analogy from Greg Sargent’s Twitter feed, “If I bought Politifact and converted it into a direct mail enterprise, and you said I ended Politifact, you would be Liar of the Year.” The simple fact is that Medicare—regardless of your thoughts on the value of the program—is a system of comprehensive universal health insurance for seniors.

To keep Medicare, Medicare, you have to maintain that basic principle. Indeed, you can imagine a voucher reform to Medicare that kept the universality by indexing the vouchers to a reasonable growth rate (see: Senator Ron Wyden’s proposed reforms with Paul Ryan). But the program passed by House Republicans was designed to end the universality of Medicare by sharply reducing its benefits to seniors, and leaving them to fend for themselves.

That Politifact would describe this as a lie is indefensible, and damaging to their credibility, especially since their finalists for “Lie of the Year” included actual lies that had a genuinely corrosive effect on policy and our public discourse (For example, “Abortion services are ”well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.“- Sen.  Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.”). In general, the problem with institutionalized fact checkers is that it’s hard to reduce all political controversies to the question of “true” or “false.” Often, someone has to make a judgment call, fact checkers often err in the direction of conventional wisdom. Politifact has taken this to its absolute extreme, and for that, we should probably ignore them.