Stuffing the ballot box didn’t matter

Following up on an earlier item, I’ve seen some suggestions that PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” competition was skewed — House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stuffed the ballot box. In some ways, I wish that were true, since it would make PolitiFact’s mistake easier to understand.

It’s accurate to note that Ryan did use his notoriety to try to influence the process. As Jamison Foser explained a couple of weeks ago, the right-wing lawmaker sent out an email to supporters, urging them to vote at PolitiFact’s website for the Democratic Medicare argument as the Lie of the Year. (Ironically, Ryan lied in his email.)

And while the congressman’s lobbying may have had some impact, we saw the results of the reader survey this morning:

1. The economic stimulus created “zero jobs.” — The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Republicans (24% of the vote)

2. Abortion services are “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”- Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. (17% of the vote)

3. “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” — The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Democrats (16% of the vote)

So, PolitiFact’s audience voted for two actual lies for Lie of the Year, but PolitiFact’s editors ignored this and awarded the dubious honor to a claim that happens to be true.

And why did the fact-checking website do this? I can’t say with certainty what the editors were thinking, though Paul Krugman makes a compelling case: “[T]he people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”

Again, I’m not going to claim to read the minds of PolitiFact’s editors, but there is a larger context to consider. In 2009, the Lie of the Year was a Republican lie. In 2010, the Lie of the Year was a different Republican lie. In 2011, a majority of the Lie of the Year nominees came from Republicans, and the top two vote-getters in its reader surveys were both Republican lies.

If PolitiFact had chosen another GOP falsehood for this year’s “award,” the website would have been condemned by the right for being partisan. So, coincidentally or not, PolitiFact avoided the conservative pushback by picking a Democratic argument.

Unfortunately for the fact-checking website, it chose a lie that happens to be true.

If PolitiFact was eager to create partisan “balance,” the least it could have done was choose a Democratic claim that was false.