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the national interest

The Trouble With Politifact

You're not allowed to argue with Paul Ryan.

Politifact has selected its annual “Lie of the Year,” and this year it’s the Democratic claim that the House Republican budget would “end Medicare.” What this selection illustrates is that Politifact has a shaky grasp on the term fact, which is a problem if you’re in the fact-assessing business.

The Republican budget would very dramatically change Medicare. The plan would turn a single-payer system into vouchers for private insurance, and the value of those vouchers would fall steadily behind the cost of that insurance, so that within a relatively short time it would cover only a small fraction of the cost of insurance.

Is that “ending Medicare?” Well, it’s a matter of opinion. At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.

Does the Republican plan indeed end Medicare? I would argue yes. But it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact. And the whole problem with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” is that it doesn’t grasp this distinction. Politifact doesn’t even seem to understand the criteria for judging whether a claim is a question of opinion or a question of fact, let alone whether it is true. The item explaining this year’s choice largely consists of irrelevant filler. For instance, Politifact quotes a worried budget scold:

"In terms of creating a national conversation about fiscal reform, the last thing we need is demagoguing attacks against people who have put forward serious policy proposals," said Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst with the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "It’s very worrying."

Yes, if your agenda is to encourage politicians to propose deficit reduction, then you’ll be worried about any criticism of any deficit reduction proposal, accurate or otherwise. So what? (Matthew Yglesias further parses Politifact’s incredibly weak explanation.)

Of course, it’s pretty clear that drawing complaints from liberals is basically the point here. Politifact is a group that requires roughly equal criticism from right and left in order to maintain its credibility. Indeed, it cites such criticism in order to make the case that we should treat it seriously – see, both sides are complaining! But it’s not a partisan issue. Politifact had some genuine Democratic lies to choose from. Politifact is just a plain shoddy, not-very-smart group, and this is true when they’re calling Republicans liars as well.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images/2010 Getty Images