Not all falsehoods are created equal

NOT ALL FALSEHOODS ARE CREATED EQUAL…. I always appreciate it when major news outlets do fact-checking items. They’re often important, not only in helping news consumers separate fact from fiction, but also in offering at least some incentive for politicians and policymakers to tell the truth.

And in the context of the debate over health care reform, it’s especially helpful, since so much of the discourse is dominated by ridiculous falsehoods. This AP piece from Charles Babington has the right idea, but has one key problem.

Confusing claims and outright distortions have animated the national debate over changes in the health care system. Opponents of proposals by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats falsely claim that government agents will force elderly people to discuss end-of-life wishes. Obama has played down the possibility that a health care overhaul would cause large numbers of people to change doctors and insurers.

Paul Krugman noted, “So Republicans are claiming that Obama will kill old people: meanwhile, Obama isn’t going into all the wonky details about possible voluntary responses to the plan. Clearly, both sides are equally guilty of distortions!”

Right. Obviously, in any debate, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is the goal. On the other end of the spectrum is outright, bald-faced lying. In between, there are some gray areas, with degrees of spinning, shading, and fudging the truth, some of which is more offensive than others.

But there have to be some considerations for severity and detail. When House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) says reform “may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia,” is that true? No, he’s lying. When Rick Santorum says the House reform bill “is very specific that private insurance would be ended,” is that true? No, he’s lying, too. When House Republican Caucus Chairman Mike Pence says refom “will literally cost nearly a trillion dollars in higher taxes,” is that true? No, he’s lying, too. When President Obama hedges on a possible, hypothetical outcome involving how insurers might respond to an improved system, is he lying? Not really, no.

The AP report documents a series of health care-related claims, some of which are lies and some of which are, at best, sketchy. But looking over the larger debate, it seems pretty obvious that opponents of reform are making demonstrably, transparently false claims, while proponents of reform are making optimistic predictions that may or may not pan out.

What the article seems reluctant to tell us, however, is that there’s a qualitative difference between the two. One side is lying; one side isn’t. Reality may have a well known liberal bias, but there’s nothing wrong in pointing out when a debate is dominated by those who feel compelled to base their case on falsehoods.