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PolitiFact's 'Lie Of Year' Put It On Shaky Ground Of Weighing Interpretations

Dec 21, 2011

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Frank James

In case you somehow missed it, PolitiFact set off something of a firestorm Tuesday by choosing as the political "lie of the year" Democratic charges that Republicans voted to "end Medicare." (We ran the PolitiFact item.)

Numerous liberals torched PolitiFact, accusing it of bending over backwards to try and find a progressive mother of all whoppers in an attempt to balance the frequent outright lies and half truths PolitiFact ascribes to conservatives. It was the crime of "false equivalence," progressives said.

PolitiFact's decision apparently hinged on what the meaning of "end" is which seems to be the source of the problem.

PolitiFact's logic, distilled to its essence, is that if a program continues to exist with the same name, albeit in radically changed form, it is inaccurate to describe the original program as having been ended.

Plenty of progressives disagree with this thinking, however. As economist Dean Baker wrote in his always provocative Beat the Press blog:

"In the Politifact world, if a company replaces its defined benefit pension with a 401(k) plan, workers who said that the company was getting rid of the pension would be liars. The Medicare system has existed as a fee for service program for almost half a century. It does allow for other options, but people have always been able to choose the traditional fee for service plan and the vast majority of beneficiaries have always chosen this option."

PolitiFact gamely dealt with all the fallout. It provided links to some of the criticism of its choice in its tweets Tuesday.

It also sought safety in numbers, tweeting at one point:

ICYMI, Factcheck.org calls Republicans-voted-to-end-Medicare one of "whoppers of 2011" bit.ly/tG4kP4

One of the best overall assessments I saw of the controversy was Greg Sargent's at the Washington Post's The Plum Line blog. He wrote:

"... I think there's still a way of persuading Politifact that they erred. Here's why: Even if you agree with PolitiFact that the GOP plan wouldn't have "ended" Medicare, the Dem claim that this is the case still can't be shown to be a "lie." That's because this disagreement ultimately comes down to differing interpretations of known facts — and not to a difference over the facts themselves.

"The GOP plan would turn a fee-for-service program which guarantees essential care to all seniors into one in which seniors get something approximating vouchers to pay for private insurance. Under the Ryan plan there would be no defined benefits, and seniors would pay more for their insurance over time.

"If you define Medicare by its traditional function — guaranteeing coverage via single payer — then the GOP plan would end Medicare. But if you define Medicare more loosely, as a program designed to make sure seniors get some form of coverage — and see the single-payer and guaranteed-essential-care elements as simply means to that general end that are not central to the program's reason for being — then the GOP plan would not completely end Medicare."

As Hamlet might say, "Ay, there's the rub."

Or, as Shakespeare's prince of Denmark might add: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Sargent makes a cogent point. Like so much in governing and policy, this is a case of competing interpretations arising from the political ideologies of those doing the interpreting.

When PolitiFact sticks to assessing the "truthiness" of a politician's "facts," it may be assailed by those who get its "pants-on-fire" rating, but it's on a lot safer ground then it found itself on in the present controversy.

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