PolitiFact Weirdly Unable to Discuss Facts

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 22 2011 5:20 PM

PolitiFact Weirdly Unable to Discuss Facts

After this week, plenty of pundits are well and done with the national version of PolitiFact. The local versions? They're great. I was actually pretty fond of how one of them debunked an ad that misued one of my quotes, attributing it to a candidate, in 2010. Alas, PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair has committed the main site to a factually dubious "Lie of the Year" claim. PolitiFact claims that it's a "lie" to say that the Path to Prosperity ends Medicare. ActualFacts tell us that this is not a lie.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Adair responds to the critics in the worst possible way.

At a Republican campaign rally a few years ago, I asked one of the attendees how he got his news.

"I listen to Rush and read NewsMax," he said. "And to make sure I'm getting a balanced view, I watch Fox."
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We're starting with an anoymous quote from a straw man that Adair met once? Here we go.

My liberal friends get their information from distinctly different sources — Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow. To make sure they get a balanced view, they click Facebook links — from their liberal friends.

Sorry, but the critics of the "Lie of the Year" were not Adair's "liberal friends." They ran the gamut from Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman to Probably-Should-Win-a-Prize-for-Something conservative writer Mark Hemingway. That's two strawmen in three paragraphs -- nice work for an arbiter of journalistic truth.

This is life in our echo chamber nation. We protect ourselves from opinions we don't like and seek reinforcement from like-minded allies.

The paradox of the Internet age is that never before have we had access to more ideas and different thoughts. And yet, many of us retreat into comfy parlors where everyone agrees and the other side is always wrong. Each side can manufacture its truths and get the chorus to sing along.

Fact check: My parlor isn't comfy at all. I bought a very cheap couch off Craigslist, which I regret. Sorry, I'm not giving Adair's pretentious throat-clearing its due, am I?

PolitiFact had its latest brush with the Echo Chamber Nation this week. We gave our Lie of the Year to the Democrats' claim that the Republicans "voted to end Medicare." That set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere, with many saying that claim was not actually wrong. We've received about 1,500 e-mails about our choice and only a few agreed with us.

Some of the response has been substantive and thoughtful. The critics said we ignored the long-term effects of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan and that we were wrong to consider his privatized approach to be Medicare. In their view, that is an end to Medicare.

In reality, it is an end to Medicare as we know it. Let's be fair -- as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out the other day, any substantive change to a program "ends the program as we know it." When you're fundamentally changing a program from the way it was designed 45 years ago, you're ending it as people know it.

We've read the critiques and see nothing that changes our findings. We stand by our story and our conclusion that the claim was the most significant falsehood of 2011. We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false.

This is false, because Democrats weren't the first to make this characterization. The Wall Street Journal's reporter Naftali Bendavid did, writing that the Ryan plan "essentially ends Medicare." Democrats, in their ads and attacks, cited that story to make their claim. I covered the NY-26 race on the ground, and I remember seeing it in the mailers and ads, but anyone can check it. The Bendavid story has never been corrected -- corrections are what editors typically do if facts have been misstated.

Our competitors FactCheck.org and the Washington Post'FactChecker had also said the Medicare claim was false — and this week both picked it for their biggest-falsehoods-of-the-year lists.

Friendly tip: If a fact is true, it is true. If a peer claims it's true, it's irrelevant.

Some of our critics wrongly attributed our choice to our readers' poll and said we were swayed by a lobbying campaign by Ryan. But our editors made the choice and the poll was not a factor.

I apologize for this one: I wrote about Ryan's effort to get people to goose the poll, not knowing that it was supposed to be irrelevant. "The poll was not a factor" is an interesting factual claim, though. Did PolitiFact editors pay no attention to which item was winning their online poll? Did it play no role whatsoever in convincing them -- and they seem very, very interested in consensus -- that they should make the Medicare claim the "lie of the year"?

Others portrayed it as a case of false balance where we put our thumb on the scale for a Democratic falsehood. This, too, is a sad byproduct of our polarized discourse, from people who are sure their side is always right.

More credit to PolitiFact: They put five Democratic claims and five Republican claims on the list. But I'm not sure how that's relevant to whether a fact is true.

Adair goes on for a while, but I don't think he puts back many of the eggshell fragments. The issue, as everyone else sees it: "PolitiFact should verify actual facts, because God knows politicians make a lot of stuff up on the fly." The issue as Adair sees it: "Shut up, critics of PolitiFact."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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