PolitiFact returns to the scene of the crime

PolitiFact made a credibility-killing mistake this week, choosing a claim for its Lie of the Year that, upon further reflection, happens to be true. I didn’t intend to return to the subject, but PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, clearly aware of the criticism, published a follow-up defense yesterday.

I won’t go through Adair’s piece in detail — Dave Weigel and Jamison Foser both published compelling, thorough responses, exposing PolitiFact’s misguided judgment — but I will note what a missed opportunity this was. I didn’t really expect the fact-checking website to admit its error, but I’d hoped Adair would read this week’s criticisms and take the time to consider the substance behind the condemnations. Instead, he published a petty, overly defensive, and self-congratulatory piece that ignored the underlying policy concerns altogether.

Adair acknowledged that “some” of those responding negatively were “substantive and thoughtful.” That’s nice, but it’d be even nicer if PolitiFact explained why those “substantive and thoughtful” critiques were incorrect. More than anything, I guess I’m just disappointed that PolitiFact chose not to take a more professional approach.

Paul Krugman today once again sets the record straight.

The background here is that Republicans voted to dismantle Medicare as we know it — a single-payer system in which the government pays essential medical bills — and replace it with a voucher scheme that, in the judgment of many health-care experts (and the Congressional Budget Office), would leave seniors having to pay large premiums out of pocket in order to afford adequate insurance; clearly, some and perhaps many would end up without adequate coverage.

This really is the end of the program we now know as Medicare. Maybe PolitiFact would like Democrats to use longer words and include qualifications, rather than saying simply that it ends Medicare — although as Brad DeLong points out, some of the Ryan plan’s supporters actually boasted that, yes, it ends Medicare as we know it. But it’s just absurd to call Democrats’ basically factual statement “Lie of the Year”.

Making that call was just a terrible decision, and it reeks of a philosophy that ranks achieving “balance” as being more important than reporting the facts.

I rather doubt Adair will want to return to the subject, but I’ll pose just two questions for PolitiFact’s editors to consider, as it comes to terms with just how damage they’ve done to their site’s reputation:

1. By PolitiFact’s judgment, the accuracy of the Democrats’ Medicare argument comes down to an interpretation of the word “end.” As Adair put it in his follow-up piece, some “view” the meaning of the word differently. If the debate ultimately comes down to semantics, and differing views are the basis for the disagreement, how in the world could this possibly be the Lie of the Year, especially when it was competing against several nominees that are actual, demonstrable, unambiguous, pants-on-fire lies?

2. In 2009, PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year was a Republican lie. In 2010, the Lie of the Year was another Republican lie. In 2011, the top two vote-getters among PolitiFact readers were both Republican lies. Is it just a coincidence that this year, PolitiFact overlooked obvious and deliberate GOP falsehoods in order to pick a semantics fight over the meaning of the word “end,” or did the editors make a conscious choice to create a sense of partisan “balance,” even if that meant selecting a lie that appears to be true?

Like I said, I rather doubt Adair wants to respond — indeed, he already had a chance to answer questions like these in his piece yesterday, and he chose not to — but I’d argue these two questions get to the heart of PolitiFact’s misjudgment.