Thursday, December 22, 2011

There's No Longer Any Reason to Cite PolitiFact

If you haven't heard by now, the internet "fact checker" PolitiFact chose the statement "Republicans voted to end Medicare" as their "Lie of the Year." The statement as far as I can tell is 100% true and, at absolute worst, is simply a statement that's true but only with the minor qualification "using a definition of the word 'ends' that most people would find perfectly reasonable."

The Republican plan would completely privatize Medicare for anyone under the age of 55. PolitiFact's argument that the claim was a "lie" was based on (1) the fact that people over 55 would remain in the same system they are today on the Republican plan and (2) Republicans would still use the term "Medicare" to refer to their new privatized system. Note first of all that their two explanations are in tension with each other; if they think it's important to note that the system is the "same" for people over 55, then they must think sameness is important. But if sameness is important, then Republicans completely changing the system (which makes it no longer the same) should undermine their claim that nothing was ended. So PolitiFact's explanations aren't even consistent with each other.

If two statements are inconsistent, that means at least one of them is wrong, but it doesn't guarantee that one of them is correct, and in this case PolitiFact is wrong on both counts. In regards to (1), the fact that Medicare continues to exist for people over 55 does not mean that Republicans haven't for all practical purposes ended it, at least on the assumption that we won't discover the Fountain of Youth in the next century. And changing the system to a private one where we are at the mercy of insurance companies alters it into a completely different concept than Medicare. Here's where some subjectivity comes in; if you think that all 'Medicare' means is "the government provides some money once you get old" then you might think the new idea still counts as Medicare; but people with a more sophisticated understanding of the system understand that the privatized version is simply not the same thing.

But more important than the fact that Politifact is wrong is that they inserted themselves into the 2012 elections and they were clearly agenda driven. There were other finalists for Lie of the Year that were clear, outright lies: John Kyl's claim that abortion services is 90% of what Planned Parenthood does, or the right-wing claim that the stimulus created no new jobs, for example. But PolitiFact apparently chose the above claim because they wanted to present the idiotic, childlike notion of "balance" that currently impairs modern journalism. Instead of searching for objective facts, many modern journalist simply search for opposing statements from two "sides." Likewise, instead of choosing an actual lie, PolitiFact chose a statement made by Democrats in order to "balance" the fact that outright lies from Republicans had been chosen in previous years.

So this brings me back to the title of this post. We used to have good reason to cite PoltiFact in political debates. In fact, I greatly enjoyed Fired Up Missouri repeatedly mocking Ed Martin over his proclivity for using the death panels "Lie of the Year." But of course, from an ideal information-gathering perspective, there was never anything especially important about PolitiFact. If both a partisan blog and PolitiFact debunked a certain claim, say by linking to the actual language of a bill, both have provided the same information. Yet the point of linking to PolitiFact was that you could trust that their analysis was not driven by an agenda. In other words, in situations where you didn't have time to do a full analysis yourself, you might think you could put trust in a group that objectively looked at the information.

However, this assumption no longer holds any water. PolitiFact has shown clearly that they are willing to distort their analysis based on a twisted political agenda; namely, the agenda of achieving false balance by appeasing the Right side of the political spectrum. There's no longer any justification for thinking that you can trust their analysis without doing just as much research as you would when getting info from any other source with a partisan bias. In fact, there's a good argument to be made for linking to an otherwise identical analysis that comes from a source that doesn't falsely pretend to be agenda-free. PolitiFact could have been a useful contribution to political discourse in this country; unfortunately, by undermining their credibility, they have now lost that opportunity.

For some excellent analyses of the PolitiFact debacle, please see the work of Paul Krugman, Dave Weigel, Tommy Christopher, and Jamison Foser.

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