Newspapers need to ditch PolitiFact, do their own checks

By   /   December 23, 2013  /   No Comments

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

When the White House press secretary can mock you for your evasive, evolving explanations, it’s time to get out of the fact-checking game.

PolitiFact’s 2013 Lie of the Year may be the most dishonest thing it has ever done. It takes the tatters of the organization’s reputation and rips them into smaller tatters — call ’em tatteritos.

LIE OF THE YEAR: Sure, Obama wasn’t too honest, but who’s being the most disingenuous now?

The newspapers around the country that signed on with PolitiFact when it seemed like such a good idea ought to pull their support now. They can fact check the right way on their own if they want.

If they care about their own credibility, they need to part ways with PolitiFact, which refuses to abide by a basic principle of journalism: acknowledging and correcting one’s errors.

PolitiFact was stubborn enough when it was run by Bill Adair. Since Angie Drobnic Holan took over, it has become apparent that PolitiFact acknowledges no reality but its own. This is a woman who once said that it was “cherry-picking” for others to cite the total cost of Obamacare.

Let that detail stand for all her reasoning: it’s not just that she misunderstands the problem, or misunderstands basic accounting, but she treats a very basic fact such as total cost as though it were some deceptive statistic, and insinuates evil motives to anyone who thinks it matters.

It is this mentality that explains how PolitiFact managed to embarrass itself so thoroughly with its Lie of the Year. Over time, PolitiFact has developed something of a catechism. As it has ruled on all the major political issues of the day, it has created a universe of its own indisputable facts.

For everyone else, the issues of the day remain points of legitimate dispute, but for PolitiFact they have hardened into dogmata. This should be the aspect most troubling to its news partners: you have to accept the universe according to PolitiFact, no matter how troubling you find the articles of faith. All new rulings have to accord with prior rulings, no matter how sloppy they were.

The difference between PolitiFact’s catechism and Catholic catechism is that a wafer is never going to jump up and declare it’s not literally the body of Christ, whereas PolitiFact dogma is often refuted by reality, sometimes spectacularly so.

It doesn’t just happen to routine rulings. It happens to the Lie of the Year, which ought to be the one lie the fact checkers are really, really, really certain is actually a lie.

Now, I thought PolitiFact hit bottom with its 2012 Lie of the Year, which they gave to Mitt Romney for an ad that said President Obama “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.” That claim was entirely true: Jeep announced plans in January to build Jeeps in China with Guangzhou Automobile Group.

But the 2013 Lie of the Year is even funnier: PolitiFact gave its Lie of the Year to a statement it had previously ruled both True and Half-True: Obama’s famous “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.”

PolitiFact stands by the Half- True rating, with Holan insisting on CNN the “the original statement is partly accurate.” She doesn’t even acknowledge the original unalloyed True rating, as there is simply no way to spin it.

So how do you turn a Half -True claim into the Lie of the Year? You make a sort of lie stew (jambaliar, anyone?) out of the true/half-true claim and another totally false revisionist claim Obama made: “What we said was, you can keep (your plan) if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”

You stir them up into one grand lie and call that the Lie of the Year.

The astute bloggers at PolitiFact Bias were the first to notice the sleight of hand, writing that “PolitiFact included this claim to save face. The ‘Half True’ for ‘If you like your health care’ resulted in an embarrassing exposure of PolitiFact’s ineptitude. This is another attempt to make up for it. Don’t be fooled. They’ve stood by the ‘Half True’ rating for years and to this day refuse to acknowledge they are wrong.”

So why does Holan insist “the original statement is partly accurate?” Well, it’s true PolitiFact acknowledged in 2009 that some people might lose their current health plan under Obamacare, but that was only because Obamacare was going to be so awesome — cheaper and better — that their companies would voluntarily switch to exchange-based coverage.

They were oblivious to the fact the Affordable Care Act and its regulations specifically disqualified all sorts of plans that are popular in a free-market — in particular, high-deductible, low-premium insurance meant to cover catastrophes. (You remember that insurance? It’s the sort of insurance that exists in every other field, as the only insurance that makes sense in a free market is the kind that covers unlikely events.)

There was never any question that Obamacare was going to narrow the insurance market to the sort of low-deductible, high-premium insurance that progressives prefer.

But PolitiFact was blind to this basic fact about Obamacare then, and it’s still blind. In introducing the Lie of the Year, Holan writes that Obama’s “promise was impossible to keep.” Right, because of Obamacare.

It’s forced millions off their health plans, not due to some unanticipated defect, but intentionally. Those people now have to buy Obama-approved plans.

In one sense, “If you like it, you can keep it” is an excellent choice for Lie of the Year, or would be for any other organization but PolitiFact.

As National Review editor Rich Lowry said, “Lie is exactly the right word because White House advisers knew. It has really defined the politics of this year. It has dragged him and the party down in a big way and may mean they lose the Senate in 2014, so this is a very good choice for lie of the year.”

There are some excellent alternatives, though, from the Internal Revenue Service’s “rogue agents” in Cincinnati to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper telling Congress the National Security Agency does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.

In world historical terms, the NSA turning the planet into its own private East Germany will have more significance than a few million Americans paying more for health care, so I’d go with Clapper or any of dozens of official lies about intelligence gathering.

PolitiFact, though, didn’t even include these staggering evasions and misrepresentations among its list of candidates. Instead, they picked chain letters and an exaggeration by Ann Coulter and other political detritus.

The guys at PolitiFact Bias argue Holan was stacking the deck, insuring that “If you like it” would have no competition in its readers’ poll.

If that was the plan, it worked. Now, like a contrite wife-beater, PolitiFact makes its gesture of conciliation without ever actually apologizing.

It’s a ridiculous sight, which is why White House Press Secretary Jay Carney could poke fun: “You know, end-of-the-year categorizations like that are always fun even when they don’t jibe with past characterizations of the very same statement.”

PolitiFact’s news partners around the country have no reason to make themselves so ridiculous. They ought to sever themselves from the PolitiFact brand, and throw the fact-checking enterprise open to their entire staff of reporters.

Just give the reporters one simple rule: find lies. If someone you cover tells a lie, and you can prove it’s a lie, then do a fact-check.

But all the Half- True, Kinda Sorta stuff PolitiFact does is just punditry by another name. Facts are either true or false, and they’re not dependent on catechism and gimmicky thermometers for their authority.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

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Jon Cassidy