When PolitiFact becomes PolitiFalse

WHEN POLITIFACT BECOMES POLITIFALSE…. Independent fact-checking outlets play an important part of the political discourse, or at least have the potential to. With a lot of figures making all kinds of claims, voters should have reliable sources they can turn to in order to help separate fact from fiction. Ideally, this would even create an incentive for more honesty — politicians might be less likely to lie if they knew there was a price to getting caught.

All of this breaks down when the independent fact-checking outlets are themselves wrong.

A couple of days ago, we discussed the new ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), featuring seniors forced to tackle jobs they wouldn’t otherwise do — selling lemonade, mowing lawns, and stripping — in order to have money for their health care. The spot is funny, but the message is serious: “Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care … because Republicans voted to end Medicare.”

PolitiFact, ostensibly one of the more trustworthy fact-checkers, argues that the DCCC’s claim isn’t just wrong, it’s “pants on fire” wrong — the worst designation the outlet can make, pointing to deliberate and flagrant dishonesty.

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year.

The report added that the PolitiFact fact-checkers would have been happier if the DCCC said Republicans had voted to end Medicare “as we know it.” The qualifier makes it true; the absence of the qualifier, apparently, makes it pants-on-fire false.

This is analysis is deeply flawed. PolitiFact has to know better.

Medicare is a single-payer health care system offering guaranteed benefits to seniors. The House Republican budget plan intends to do away with the existing system and replace it with something very different — a privatized voucher plan. 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.

As for PolitiFact’s claim that funding for the new “Medicare” vouchers “would increase,” that’s true, but it’s also misleading — the value of the voucher wouldn’t keep up with escalating health care costs, creating new financial burdens on the elderly. It’s the one of the keys to understanding the whole controversy.

And that’s just the most glaring flaw in the PolitiFact report. It also offers misleading analysis related to CBO data and makes dubious complaints about when the new GOP-imposed burdens will apply to the elderly.

The DCCC’s ad is accurate. It puts a little partisan spin on its message, but characterizing the spot as egregiously dishonest is absurd.

When an outlet puts “fact” in its name, the standards are especially high. In this case, PolitiFact fell far short.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.