PolitiFact ought to be ashamed of itself

The fact-checking website PolitiFact has announced its “Lie of the Year” for 2011. It made a poor, credibility-killing choice.

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.

This is simply indefensible. Claims that are factually true shouldn’t be eligible for a Lie of the Year designation.

It’s unnerving that we have to explain this again, but since PolitiFact appears to be struggling with the relevant details, let’s set the record straight.

Medicare is a single-payer health care system offering guaranteed benefits to seniors. The House Republican budget plan intended to privatize the existing system and replace it with something very different — a voucher scheme. It would still be called “Medicare,” but it wouldn’t be Medicare.

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word “end,” but if there’s a program, and it’s replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That’s what the verb means.

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.

Indeed, reading through PolitiFact’s defense of its dubious honor, the explanation is effectively a semantics argument — its Lie of the Year, the editors argue, didn’t include the caveats and context that would make it more accurate. But let’s not forget, there were actual, demonstrable, unambiguous lies among the finalists for Lie of the Year. PolitiFact overlooked all of them.

When an outlet puts “fact” in its name, the standards for accuracy are especially high. When it’s selecting a Lie of the Year, standards dictate that the falsehood should be overwhelmingly obvious and offensive.

Today, PolitiFact, which relies exclusively on its credibility to affect the political discourse, ought to be ashamed of itself.

Update: I’ve seen some suggestions that Paul Ryan influenced the process by stuffing the ballot box. Here’s some additional analysis on this point.

Second Update: I didn’t realize this until later, but my friend John Cole used a similar car analogy two weeks ago. I guess great minds do think alike.