PolitiFact, Fearing a Right-Wing Backlash, Calls Democrats' 100% True Claim About the GOP Medicare Plan the "Lie of the Year"

PolitiFact clearly chose the claim to avoid charges that it holds a liberal or Democratic bias.

Conservatives have long excelled at working the refs -- the corporate media. And this week they scored a resounding victory, as PolitiFact, the non-partisan fact-checker, dismissed the results of its readers' poll to declare the entirely truthful statement that House Republicans voted to “end Medicare” as we know it the “lie of the year.”

The move will have an impact on the 2012 race; Democrats are going to run against the GOP's vote on the so-called “Ryan plan,” and now low-information voters will be told again and again by Republican partisans that their central argument is false. As the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn noted on Tuesday, PolitiFact's judgment is “the lead story, with a massive headline, on the front page of today's St. Petersburg Times – an influential newspaper in a key election state loaded with senior citizens.”

The claim is true. For people who retire after 2022, the Republican plan would end Medicare – a single-payer insurance system that covers most of seniors' health-care expenses – and replace it with a system of vouchers that retirees could use to purchase insurance on the private market. Unlike Medicare, the value of the vouchers won't rise as fast as the cost of health-care, so they will, over the years, cover less and less of seniors' costs. According to the Congressional Budget Office (PDF), in 2030, seniors would be covering 25 percent of their health-care costs under Medicare but68 percent of the tab under the Republican plan.


It would remain “Medicare” in name only. Steve Benen offered a good analogy:

Imagine someone owns a Ferrari. It’s expensive and drives beautifully, and the owner desperately wants to keep his car intact. Now imagine I took the car away, removed the metallic badge off the trunk that says “Ferrari,” I stuck it on a golf cart, and I handed the owner the keys.

“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.

“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”

By PolitiFact’s reasoning, I haven’t actually replaced the car — and if you disagree, you’re a pants-on-fire liar.

PolitFact's own rationale doesn't justify its “pants on fire” rating. The PolitiFact editors said that the claim doesn't have the necessary caveats to make it accurate. If one adds, “as we know it” to the end of the statement, it's indisputably accurate, so at worst one would think it might merit a “mostly true” or “somewhat true” rating.

PolitiFact chose the “lie” to avoid charges that it holds a liberal or Democratic bias. Its 2009 Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin's “death panels” nonsense, and last year it anointed the talking-point that the Affordable Care Act represents a "government takeover of the heath care system" as its annual whopper of whoppers. This year, they appear to have gone out of their way to choose a Democratic target in order to offer some contrived sense of “balance.”

It was the only statement made by Democrats among the five finalists, and the other four are demonstrably, blatantly untrue. They included Senator Jon Kyle's claim that abortion services represent "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" (it's just 3 percent), the standard-issue GOP claim that the economic stimulus created "zero jobs" (the very lowest estimate is 1.3 million) and the ubiquitous claim that there's a deep divide among climate scientists over man-made climate change (97.4 percent of climate scientists agree on this point). Rounding out the final five was Michele Bachmann's bizarre suggestion that the HPV vaccine can make children “retarded.”

The accurate claim that the Republicans had voted to end Medicare (as we know it) might not have even made the final five if not for Paul Ryan's intervention. Dave Weigel reported for Slate that Ryan, author of the GOP plan, sent an email to supporters urging them to stuff the ballot box. “Dear Friend,” read the email, “I need your vote."

Politifact, a non-partisan, fact-checking website, is now taking votes for the 2011 'Lie of the Year,' and one of the nominees is the Democrats’ "Pants on Fire" lie about Republicans voting to "end Medicare."

Help me fight the lies, falsehoods, and attacks of the Left by casting a vote to show the Democrat’s lie that Republicans voted to “end Medicare” is the worst political lie of 2011.Click here to cast your vote now at Politifact.

Even with that advantage, the Democrats' claim only came in at 3rd place, with 16 percent of the vote. That the stimulus created no jobs – one of the GOP's central arguments heading into this election year – led with 24 percent of the votes cast, followed by the nonsense about Planned Parenthood being little more than an abortion provider. 

It's so clear that Politifact went out of its way to find a “lie” told by Democrats that the American Prospect's Paul Waldman, a long-time media observer, actually called it two weeks ago. “Giving the 'Lie of the Year' award to Republicans three years in a row would just invite too much criticism from the right," he wrote, "and if there's one thing the right is good at, it's screaming at journalists about 'liberal bias.'"

So my bet is that they're going to go with the contention that Paul Ryan's budget plan "ends Medicare," which has the benefit of being an important assertion repeated many times, despite the fact that it's actually not a lie at all …

The irony here is that PolitiFact and projects like it exist precisely to combat mindless "he said, she said" journalism, the kind that quotes one side, then the other side, and asserts that the standard of "objectivity" has been met.

The most enduring conspiracy theory in America is that the institutions charged with offering some semblance of objective reality – the media, the academy, scientists – are hopelessly biased towards the left, if not outwardly hostile to “traditional American values.” The right has not only developed its own dedicated, ideological media to do battle with traditional news outlets, but also an activist network, built around well funded organizations like the Media Research Center and Accuracy in Media, that can direct conservative ire at reporters and editors whom they portray as showing insufficient deference to their perspective.

It's worked in the past, it worked on the editors of PolitiFact this year, and it will continue to pay dividends as long as "neutral" media outlets like PolitiFact give equal credence to the right's alternative reality.

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Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.