PolitiFact Just Lost the Left

The Atlantic Wire
PolitiFact Just Lost the Left
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PolitiFact Just Lost the Left

Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking operation PolitiFact shattered its rapport with the liberal media Tuesday after it crowned left-wing attacks on Paul Ryan's Medicare plan the "Lie of the Year" for 2011.

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From New York Times' Paul Krugman to Slate's Matt Yglesias to New York's Jonathan Chait to The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen to Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler, the liberal blogosphere has come down on the group for making a "credibility-killing" decision. ''This is really awful," wrote Krugman. "This is simply indefensible," wrote Benen. "Politifact doesn’t even seem to understand the criteria for judging whether a claim is a question of opinion or a question of fact, let alone whether it is true," wrote Chait. 

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The outrage comes just weeks after conservatives, led by The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway, launched a similar crusade against the project, launched by the St. Petersburg Times, alleging a systematic liberal bias. "In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged 'false' or 'pants on fire' over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent)," read the widely-rehashed article. "You can believe that Republicans lie more than three times as often as Democrats. Or you can believe that, at a minimum, PolitiFact is engaging in a great deal of selection bias, to say nothing of pushing tendentious arguments of its own." The article goes on to describe a litany of complaints in specific cases. 

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The question is: Is this a natural outgrowth of truth-tellers operating in a polarized, two-party system or is PolitiFact's fact-checking actually, legitimately bad? Obviously, liberals think they've caught the operation red-handed today.

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"Let me just repeat the basics," began Krugman, explaining why he feels the Ryan plan actually kills Medicare. "Republicans voted to replace Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance — and not just that, a voucher system in which the value of the vouchers would systematically lag the cost of health care, so that there was no guarantee that seniors would even be able to afford private insurance."

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Punctuating his analysis, Krugman asks "How is this not an end to Medicare?" The arguments from his liberal allies run along the same lines. "Plans to end Medicare starting ten years from now are a subset of plans to end Medicare," wrote Yglesias. To make matters worse, liberal blogger Digby points out that Ryan had e-mailed his PAC, and one would assume others, urging them to vote in PolitiFact's survey of biggest lies of the year earlier this year. 

Dear Friend - I need your vote. Politifact, a non-partisan, fact-checking website, is now taking votes for the 2011 “Lie of the Year,” and one of the nominees is the Democrats’ “Pants on Fire” lie about Republicans voting to “end Medicare.” Click here to vote now and ensure the Democrats’ lies about the Path to Prosperity are exposed.

Importantly, Digby notes that this was the only Democrat "lie" on the list, meaning the editors at PolitiFact had a number of lies to choose from for the final nomination. Update: In an e-mail to The Atlantic Wire, PolitiFact editor Bill Adair reinforces the point that the reader's choice poll did not influence the editors' final decision. "The PolitiFact editors choose the Lie of the Year," he said. "We have the readers' choice award so readers can state their preference, but the choice of the actual Lie of the Year is made by the editors based on our judgment of the most significant falsehood." Addressing Ryan's campaigning for the Medicare "lie," Adair said "this was the first time we'd had that kind of campaigning.  But again, it wasn't a factor in our decision."

As for its actual story, in PolitiFact's initial argument, it did concede that the Ryan plan could reduce the comprehensiveness of Medicare, but pointed out most forcefully that liberals and Democrats mostly over-reached when attacking the Ryan plan:

• They ignored the fact that the Ryan plan would not affect people currently in Medicare -- or even the people 55 to 65 who would join the program in the next 10 years.

• They used harsh terms such as "end" and "kill" when the program would still exist, although in a privatized system.

• They used pictures and video of elderly people who clearly were too old to be affected by the Ryan plan. The DCCC video that aired four days after the vote featured an elderly man who had to take a job as a stripper to pay his medical bills.

Responding to critics today, PolitiFact editor Bill Adair tells Politico it's not alone in calling out Democrats on this. "It's worth noting that both FactCheck.org and Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post have also rated the claim false," he said. "I appreciate and respect the feedback we're getting and I recognize that our readers won't always agree with our conclusions."

Still that hasn't stopped liberals from seeing this as a move to appear objective and bipartisan at the expense of telling the truth. "It’s pretty clear that drawing complaints from liberals is basically the point here," writes Chait. "PolitiFact is a group that requires roughly equal criticism from right and left in order to maintain its credibility."

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