PolitiFact, which has become the premier fact-checking entity in American journalism, just announced its nominees for its annual "Lie of the Year" award. This is, of course, a gimmick designed to bring more attention to the group's work. There's nothing wrong with that—lots of organizations do similar things. But because PolitiFact has built a good reputation among journalists (not unchallenged, though—it's been criticized by both the right and the left at various times, and some of those criticisms have been valid), it has a good deal at stake in making sure its "Lie of the Year" is as persuasive as possible. In other words, the decision will be political. There's just no way to avoid it.
So here's my prediction: It's going to pick a "lie" told by Democrats, even if the one it picks is far from the most egregious lie told this year, or even really a lie at all.
This is the third time PolitiFact has declared a "Lie of the Year." The first, in 2009, was Sarah Palin's "death panel" lie. The second, continuing on the health-care theme, was the claim that the Affordable Care Act constituted a "government takeover of the heath care system." Both of these were repeated often, played a prominent role in an important debate, and were clearly false. And both were lies told by Republicans, which is the main reason why I think this year, PolitiFact is going to pick a lie told by Democrats.
So what about this year's nominees? There are five told by Democrats and five told by Republicans. They range from crazy things said one time (Michele Bachmann's contention that some lady told her vaccines cause mental retardation), to standard political hyperbole (President Obama claiming his administration's review of government regulations was "unprecedented"), to some that are actually consequential. If I were voting, I'd pick the claim that there is a great deal of disagreement among scientists about whether climate change is occurring. PolitiFact attributes it to Rick Perry, but the same lie has been told by lots and lots of prominent Republicans. It's clearly false, it gets repeated pretty much every time the discussion comes up, and it concerns a critical issue. Or perhaps the lie, told by almost every Republican presidential candidate and lots of other conservatives, that President Obama has gone around the world "apologizing for America."
But I don't think either of those is what PolitiFact is going to pick. Giving the "Lie of the Year" award to Republicans three years in a row would just invite too much criticism from the right, and if there's one thing the right is good at, it's screaming at journalists about "liberal bias." So my bet is that they're going to go with the contention that Paul Ryan's budget plan "ends Medicare," which has the benefit of being an important assertion repeated many times, despite the fact that it's actually not a lie at all (but that's a discussion for another day).
The irony here is that PolitiFact and projects like it exist precisely to combat mindless "he said, she said" journalism, the kind that quotes one side, then the other side, and asserts that the standard of "objectivity" has been met. They ought to be completely immune from political considerations when making their judgements. But what if Republicans have just told the biggest lies in the last few years?
I could be wrong, of course: PolitiFact could resist all the pressure and pick a lie that's actually a lie, and that actually matters, for its "Lie of the Year," no matter who said it. We'll see.