Gong-show of the year: Politifact fails but so do we all!

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2011

Who will fact-check the fact-checkers: As you may have heard, Politifact recently chose its annual “Lie of the Year.”

In the process, the fact-checking site made progressives mad. We agree that Politifact made a very dumb choice for "Lie of the Year." But might we start with the basics?

Why would a serious fact-checking site be choosing a “Lie of the Year” in the first place? In our view, PolitiFact ceased to be serious when it ventured down this low-IQ road.

Just consider one of the site’s ten nominations for this year’s prize. To peruse all ten, click this:
The vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation.—Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann
Bachmann’s statement was a real groaner. But what made Politifact call it a “lie?” If we’re still speaking English, a lie is a knowing misstatement of fact. Did anyone think that Bachmann knew that this statement was way off-base?

Until fairly recently, journalists widely avoided use of the tricky word “lie.” Quite correctly, journalistic culture had long understood a basic fact: As a general matter, it's hard to tell if a misstatement is knowing. But with the rise of tribal culture has come the desire for frequent loud thunder, the dumber the thunder the better.

Tribal groups love to name-call the other. One apparent result: Even this major “fact-checking" site abandoned a very old, useful distinction. Can we talk? Politifact has no idea if Bachmann was “lying” when she blurted that groaner. But so what? In the modern context, the thunder feels very good.

Politifact thus dumbs us all down. But so did some of our leading liberals as we roared about the selection. In this passage, the liberal world’s most valuable player dumbed this topic down too:
KRUGMAN (12/20/11): Politifact, R.I.P.

This is really awful. Politifact, which is supposed to police false claims in politics, has announced its Lie of the Year—and it’s a statement that happens to be true, the claim that Republicans have voted to end Medicare.

Steve Benen in the link above explains it, but let me just repeat the basics. Republicans voted to replace Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance—and not just that, a voucher system in which the value of the vouchers would systematically lag the cost of health care, so that there was no guarantee that seniors would even be able to afford private insurance.

The new scheme would still be called “Medicare”, but it would bear little resemblance to the current system, which guarantees essential care to all seniors.

How is this not an end to Medicare?
And given all the actual, indisputable lies out there, how on earth could saying that it is be the “Lie of the year”?
Is “the claim that Republicans have voted to end Medicare...a statement that happens to be true?” We’re sorry, but it isn’t that simple. Politifact was very silly to pick that claim as “Lie (or Misstatement) of the Year.” But there were some problems with that claim, even though tribals won’t notice such things as they spill over with ardor.

“How is this not an end to Medicare?” Thinking about the world of real people who do get misled, let us count two possible ways:

“This is not an end to Medicare” if some senior citizen hears that claim and thinks it means that the GOP is ending all health care assistance to seniors. Almost surely, some senior citizens were misled by that claim in that fashion.

“This is not an end to Medicare” if some senior citizen hears that claim and thinks that the GOP proposal would take effect immediately—would affect their ongoing assistance under Medicare. Again, we will assume that some seniors were misled that way by that claim.

In theory, it’s easy to straighten out such misunderstandings. But it’s also easy to avoid those misunderstandings, perhaps by putting your thunder aside and making a more nuanced, more accurate statement.

Many folk have noted the fact that it’s very easy to say this: "The GOP proposal would end Medicare as we know it."

It’s easy to make that more accurate statement. But in an increasingly tribal culture, the thunder pleases us more. And in all honesty, we progresisves rarely think about regular people who may get misled, unless they're getting misled by very bad folk in the other tribe. Simply put, we don't really care if folk get misled by us.

Krugman is our most valuable player, by far. In our view, he’s a genuine hero of journalistic labor. But he’s a bit of a late-blooming rube when it comes to partisan matters. The post he wrote just wasn’t real smart. He was working outside his element.

By the way, did we mention that this was a very dumb choice by Politifact? Your lizard brain will yell in your ear, saying we didn’t say that.

Our choice for misstatement of the year: Among Politifact’s ten nominees, our choice for groaner of the year would be this:
The economic stimulus created "zero jobs."—The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Republicans
That was a genuine, widely-mouthed groaner. You can argue that statement is “technically accurate.” You just can’t argue it well.

25 comments:

  1. Nice clear explanation of why Krugman was overstating things, Bob. I admire your willingness to criticize Krugman when he deserves it.

    This discussion takes me back to the days when I designed economics questions for actuarial exams. Strictly speaking, there's no way to know how many jobs the stimulus created or destroyed. We can't rerun history without the stimulus.

    If I were writing a true-false question, it would say, "The stimulus created X jobs, according to so-and-so." It's not a fact that, "The stimulus created zero jobs" nor is it a fact that, "The stimulus created 2 million jobs." I'd be uncertain of how to answer either of these questions on a T-F exam.

    I appreciate Bob's distinction between lies and incorrect statements. However, I wish there were word as blunt as "lie" to describe harmful incorrect statements, because Michelle Bachman's statement was so dreadful. Bogus claims about Medicare ending or about the stimulus being ineffective are just normal politics. But, false beliefs about vaccines lead to avoidable sickness and deaths of our children.

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  2. Terming the claims that Medicare as we know it would effectively end "bogus" is a rhetorical strategy, one that DavidinCA shows no sign of abandoning.

    False beliefs that the GOP plans then under discussion would not effectively end Medicare leads to avoidable sickness and early death for our elderly.

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  3. 'False beliefs that the GOP plans then under discussion would not effectively end Medicare leads to avoidable sickness and early death for our elderly.'

    Huh?

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  4. Hm. Just because there were some people out there who would genuinely not understand a statement doesn't make said statement a lie. I wrote for several years online and I was always sure someone would take something I said the wrong way. That doesn't make those statements lies - it just means some people aren't quite literate in the topic and/or have reading comprehension issues.

    On this particular issue, I really don't get how "as we know it" really changes anything. When something is altered to the point where it's unrecognizable (ie "ends... as we know it"), it would be fair to say that the previous state is over.

    Since the Ryan plan changed Medicare from an entitlement to a voucher system - from a program that pays for medical services to a program that would pay a set amount per person - the essence of Medicare is gone. It's like how a colleague a few years ago who was assigned to research the benefits of Social Security privatization put it: "privatizing" just means "ending" when the entire point of Social Security is it's public nature.

    I don't watch TV so I don't watch political ads, and I'd really like for every instance where someone says Republicans voted to end Medicare to be accompanied by the statement "and replaced it with a(n inadequate) voucher system." ("as we know it" is a superfluous phrase that helps no one understand what happened.) I'd also like for a neutral party to explain exactly what happened and how that'd affect most people, but that's not going to happen.

    But I really can't blame the ads for getting to the point - if the Ryan plan were implemented, the guarantee of coverage for seniors would be over. All it would take is a few recessions for Congress to reduce the vouchers to nothing/almost nothing.

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  5. I don't understand the motivation for calling Krugman a "rube," as you have done repeatedly in the last few weeks. Disagree with him; that's certainly fine. But implying that he is being foolish is a much stronger thing to do, and it seems unwarranted.

    One of the criticisms of progressives you yourself have made, repeatedly, is that they do not come up with easy-to-grasp statements on complex issues. Arguably, the claim in question ("The Republicans want to end Medicare") is one such attempt. Yes, we can qualify it and offer a more nuanced thesis that cuts a bit closer to the truth. But this one seems pretty close as it is.

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  6. willyjsimmons, asked "Huh?"

    It's a parallel to DavidinCA's construction -- only it's part of the real world, not of some fevered imagination.

    The impact of vaccine-denial (to coin a term) on policy has been negligible -- and it has never reached a level of influence that amounted to government policy against vaccines threatening to cause "avoidable sickness and deaths of our children."

    In contrast, in the real world, the impact of denial that the GOP was trying eliminate Medicare (viz, DavidinCA's "Bogus claims about Medicare ending") has indeed been influential. Politifact has bowed to the influence. The threat to Medicare was (and likely remains) real.

    Denial about this leads to false beliefs that the GOP plans then under discussion would not have effectively ended Medicare. They would have.

    These false beliefs would indeed lead to avoidable sickness and early death for our elderly, should GOP policy be implemented.

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  7. Creating a voucher system and calling it "Medicare" doesn't mean Medicare is not ending, any more than deciding to call an apple a banana means that apples become long and yellow. Same result as far as I'm concerned. I'm too young to be grandfathered into the real Medicare system -- Medicare ends for me, for anyone younger than my parents, and eventually for everyone as the older folks pass away. It's the most cowardly kind of bait-and-switch policymaking, and Politifact deserves to be called on it, as well as the Republicans.

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  8. Krugman is taking a shortcut here. If you read his book ”The Conscience of a Liberal", he explains why the ideology of the right is opposed to using tax money to pay medical expenses.
    It’s the old idea that everyone shouldn’t be required to pay for someone that has been born with bad genes, or doesn’t take good care of hinself, or engages in risky activities. Also, the high cost of some treatments to save a handful of individuals should not be forced onto others.
    There is some validity to these arguments, and they have been going on since LBJ was campaigning.

    The facts are Republicans HAVE been trying to kill Medicare since its inception. That is a matter of public record.
    Krugman can’t detail the history of that campaign every time he brings up the subject. His readers know the history.
    For the same reason Krugman can’t preface an argument against Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining activities with a history of the American labor movement.
    Bob seems to be requiring that every argument put forth by liberals must pass a stringent test of general semantics, or else the poorly informed independents will not understand it.
    Yet if you inundate readers with a sliced and diced, qualified, but absolutely true statement they will understand it even less, (and find more points to attack).
    The ultimate goal of the Ryan plan and Republican leaders IS the end of Medicare, the voucher system is just another step along the way. The reasoning is, if you take small enough steps, no one will notice.
    It’s the old frog in hot water parable. Both Krugman and I have used it, and yes, we both know it isn’t true.

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  9. "The impact of vaccine-denial (to coin a term) on policy has been negligible"

    True, but there has been a major impact on people's conduct. Large numbers of misled parents are not giving their children proper vaccinations. These children are at risk for contracting and spreading various diseases.

    "if the Ryan plan were implemented, the guarantee of coverage for seniors would be over. All it would take is a few recessions for Congress to reduce the vouchers to nothing/almost nothing."

    True, but the same is the case of Medicare as currently structured. We have no contractual right to benefits under Medicare. At any time, a change in law could take some or all Medicare benfits away.

    If recessions made the cheaper Ryan version of Medicare unaffordable, those recessions would make the current version even more unaffordable.

    In fact, the current version of Medicare already is unaffordable. That's why it's unfortunately necessary to consider cheaper alternatives.

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  10. Medicare is a system of transfers to pay for the health care costs of retirees. If the Republicans voted to change Medicare to a voucher system that *increased* the level of transfers, would anyone call that "a vote to end Medicare?" Of course they wouldn't. So the idea that "the essence" of Medicare is a particular method of effecting the transfers - rather than the transfers themselves - is ridiculous.

    I think the correct description is not "the Republicans voted to end Medicare" or not "the Republicans voted to end Medicare as we know it" (too imprecise) but instead "the Republicans voted to CUT Medicare." That gets at the key point, instead of the false point of "ending" Medicare. (If the voucher system is proven to be a less efficient funding method then you could say instead "the Republicans voted to cut Medicare and make it more wasteful.")

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  11. To DinC
    it's not that the current system of Medicare is unaffordable, it's that the entire medical system is priced way beyond the reach of most Americans.
    The system is broken and needs a complete overhaul.
    I hate to say it, but Newt seems to be the only big pol willing to talk about the systemic problems.

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  12. Medicare is a system of transfers to pay for the health care costs of retirees. If the Republicans voted to change Medicare to a voucher system that *increased* the level of transfers, would anyone call that "a vote to end Medicare?" Of course they wouldn't. So the idea that "the essence" of Medicare is a particular method of effecting the transfers - rather than the transfers themselves - is ridiculous.

    Medicare is not a mere transfer program. Medicare is an entitlement program. The difference is that a transfer program can limit who it serves to fewer people than all qualified beneficiaries, and the scope of its benefits can be cut at any time. Medicare has a certain threshold of benefits that must be provided to every qualified beneficiary, and that threshold serves as a floor below which benefits may not be cut without fundamental change to the program's statutory structure. Qualified beneficiaries do indeed have a contractual right to receipt of Medicare benefits; beneficiaries who think they have been wrongly denied benefits have due process rights to appeal the denial.

    That is why Republicans hate "entitlements." The programs cannot simply be done to death by a thousand cuts -- they must be fundamentally destroyed. And unfortunately, the middle-class voting public loves entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, because they are its biggest beneficiaries. Not the poor, the middle class. So the strategy now is to gut the programs from the inside out with privatization, to make it appear as though the programs are going to stay the same when they really aren't.

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  13. From a legal POV there's no real difference between Medicare and a transfer program. A transfer program can limit who it serves to fewer people than all qualified beneficiaries, and the scope of its benefits can be cut at any time, by means of a law change. The same is true of Medicare and SS.

    The difference IMHO is that Medicare and SS have been presented as if they were insurance to which retirees were entitled because of the money they paid in during their working years. That (false) presentation makes these programs politically very difficult to cut. They're not legal entitlements; they're political entitlements.

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  14. Krugman's right. It is an end to Medicare.

    It might be something else, but it would not be Medicare. And I think most oldsters would notice this right away, or agree ahead of time that it was not Medicare.

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  15. I am not willing to end the Department of Defense, I just want the Pentagon to focus instead on making wool socks for the populace.
    If anyone says I'm willing to end Defense of this country I will notify Politifact posthaste about the lying.

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  16. I don't understand the distinction you're making between "political" entitlements and "legal" entitlements, but your first paragraph is incorrect. SS is not counted as part of GDP since it is a transfer program; Medicare is counted as part of GDP since it's directly writing checks to pay for people's medical care.

    I would call both entitlement programs since people, after paying into them their entire lives, are entitled to some comfort at the end. It's not like 80-year-olds are all that employable anyway, so taking away their health care and SS is basically condemning a considerable number of them to poverty.

    And that's what the Ryan plan changed: it would take away the idea that someone is entitled to health care in their retirement and replace it with a voucher. Medicare the entitlement is gone; a voucher of variable value (variable in that it would be easy for Congress to play around with how much gets disbursed) was offered up as a consolation prize.

    --

    So what's the bright-line, people who think that it is a lie to say that Republicans voted to end Medicare? At what point is Medicare so diminished that it no longer exists?

    I'd say it's at the point where its point is no longer to provide essential health care to the elderly. But from what I'm hearing from the other side of this argument is that so long as there's a government program (from a school lunch program to an invasion to environmental regulation) with the name "Medicare," then Medicare continues to exist.

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  17. “This is not an end to Medicare” if some senior citizen hears that claim and thinks it means that the GOP is ending all health care assistance to seniors.

    Okay, fair enough.

    “This is not an end to Medicare” if some senior citizen hears that claim and thinks that the GOP proposal would take effect immediately—would affect their ongoing assistance under Medicare.

    No, this part is nonsense. If I say the GOP has a plan to do X, "has a plan" explicitly indicates that if the GOP got their way, X would occur sometime in the future. Seriously, how soon does this X have to happen for X not to be misleading? Since you're okay with it after appending "as we know it", what difference does it make whether it ends it "as we know it" today, a week, a year, or a decade from now?

    Saying we'll only cut it for everyone under 55 just violates the generational social contract and endagers it for everyone over 55 as well. If there are seniors out there who only care about themselves and they misunderstand Medicare cuts as taking effect immediately, this does not matter--because the misunderstanding is entirely their fault, because they're being selfish anyway so if their own mistake leads them to do the right thing that's good, and because screwing over future generations actually could unravel the whole system so even the selfish have to care about future benefit cuts.

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  18. Alex, I've been on Medicare for 4 years. Here's what it means to me.

    Medicare covers a lot of my medicare care, at a certain preimium cost to me (for Part B). My supplementary insurance covers some of what Medicare doesn't cover. Also, I have to pay a certain amount for medical care, for treatments that aren't covered or when the coverage doesn't pay the full amount for the treatment.

    Despite a lifetime in insurance, I've never bothered to check exact rules and coverages. I simply get my health care as needed. The medical care practitioner submits the bills to Medicare and to my United Health Care, my supplemental carrier. What's covered is covered. When medical care practitioner sends me a bill for what isn't covered, I pay it.

    Conceptually, I think the voucher plan is the same sort of animal. I'd use the voucher to buy health insurance. The health insurance might cost more than the voucher, so I'd have to pay part of the premium myself. This is like the current requirement that I pay a premium for Medicare Part B. The insurance I bought would cover whatever it covered with whatever co-pays were required, just as Medicare does today.

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  19. I like Jay Rosen's summary of this: i.e. "...if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion becomes impossible." (link below)

    Sounds to me much like B. Somerby's take above: "But it’s also easy to avoid those misunderstandings, perhaps by putting your thunder aside and making a more nuanced, more accurate statement. "


    Rosen's post:
    http://pressthink.org/2011/12/politifact-chose-the-vice-of-the-year-and-called-it-a-lie/

    But the object of their criticism wasn’t a lie, it was a vice. They chose the vice of the year, and they called it a lie, which violates one of the ideas Politifact stands for: if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion becomes impossible.

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  20. Despite a lifetime in insurance, I've never bothered to check exact rules and coverages. I simply get my health care as needed.

    How lovely for you. Those of us under age 65 don't get to live that way. That's because we don't have Medicare. Instead, we have insurance programs that change what they cover from year to year, include premiums, co-pays, and deductibles for which varying and changing rules apply, capriciously deny covered claims, and always, always, increase in price every year faster than the growth of wages.

    DavidinCal, I urge you to remove yourself from the Medicare rolls. Walk your talk for a change.

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  21. Anonymous, in principle the same is true of Medicare. Medicare also changes what they cover from year to year, includes premiums (on Part B), co-pays, and deductibles for which varying and changing rules apply, capriciously denies covered claims, and always, always, increases (Part B) in price every year faster than the growth of wages.

    In some ways, I think Medicare is more generous than the insurance I had during my working days. However, I don't pay much attention to how much is covered by Medicare vs. how much is covered by my supplemental policy from United Health.

    OTOH in some ways, the private insurance I had during my working days was more generous than Medicare. It included coverage for Dental; Medicare has none. It included fairly good coverage for prescription drugs; Medicare's coverage is more limited. I think it also may have included some amount for eye glasses.

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  22. I recently came across your site and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Susan

    Cure for Sweaty Feet

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  23. Do you think you could bend over any further backwards to proclaim that Politifacts was actually correct? And if you've been calling Krugman a rube, Bob, you can start right there when trying to figure out why you're a D-list blogger with zero influence and always will be. Krugman a rube? How trollish of you.

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  24. If a lie requires a burden of proof as to intent, then we might as well dispense with the word.

    But the concept of lie - as a moral failing, and as a warning to identify those who are particularly untrustworthy - is vital.

    I don't need to read Michelle Bachmann's mind to determine whether her statement deserved to be branded a lie. I need to know that, as someone who is running for President, she has an obligation to engage in basic research before making an incendiary claim. Whether she knowingly lied, or recklessly disregarded the whether the statement was true or false, or simply does not have the analytical ability to be President is splitting the question too finely. It was a statement that had no place in public discourse, that sent the discussion backward, not forward, and highlighted her unsuitability for high office.

    Often, with candidates like Bachmann, the choice is to call them liars or call them stupid. The problem with calling them stupid is that it smears the followers. I prefer to think of voters as suckers rather than imbeciles, and I prefer to maintain the illusion that people running for office are presumed to have a certain minimum standard of competence. If that means that a statement that is merely incredibly vacuous is labelled as having ill intent, so be it.

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  25. Anon's last comment at December 27, 2011 7:25 PM is worth noting. I want to put it a little differently:

    Lying includes saying you know something that you do not know.

    Calling that action a lie fits the stricter definition of a lie (as a false statement with intent) while not allowing them to say any damn thing they please as long as intent can't be established.

    One other thing, the Howler can call Krugman a rube if he damn well pleases. Krugman has been shown to be naive in political cases. And I know for a fact the Howler is followed in important places, though not closely enough. Yet.

    The world is insane. But let there be one sane voice in the world right now, so that future historians can look back and say, 'they can't say they weren't warned.'

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