Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER
In naming as its 2011 "Lie of the Year" a statement that is, at worst, arguably true, Politifact has inadvertently said more about itself and the media's failure to adequately combat the lies and deception that act as a cancer on American democracy.
Politifact's assertion that it is a lie to say "Republicans voted to end Medicare" -- and that this is the most important lie of the year -- suffers from some basic flaws: Republicans did, in fact, vote to end Medicare; and Politifact overlooked actual lies that have had and continue to have a profound and debilitating effect on the nation's attempts to come out of lingering economic troubles.
Politifact's "Lie of the Year" announcement provides little in the way of actual evidence that the claim is a lie, instead referring readers to previous efforts for its substantive case, such as it is. The weakness of Politifact's ruling that the House GOP budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not "end Medicare" can be seen in its April 20, 2011, explanation:
One of the its major features is dramatically restructuring Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for those 65 and older. Right now, Medicare pays doctors and hospitals set fees for the care beneficiaries receive. [...] In 2022 [under the GOP plan] new beneficiaries would receive "premium support," which means they would buy plans from private insurance companies with financial assistance from the government. [...]the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. [...] Both Republicans and Democrats would no doubt agree that Ryan's plan for Medicare is a dramatic change of course. But we don't agree with the ad's contention that the proposal ends Medicare.
So, according to Politifact, the House Republican plan constitutes a "dramatic restructuring" of Medicare, a "huge change to the current program," and a "dramatic change of course" by ending the direct payment of fees for service and replacing it with a voucher program. In its "Lie of the Year" write-up, Politifact again concedes the GOP plan "dramatically changed the program [for people currently under age 55] by privatizing it and providing government subsidies." That's ending Medicare, just as replacing the armed services with government vouchers for private bodyguards would be ending the U.S. military. As Igor Volsky wrote earlier this month, "closing the traditional fee-for-service program, and forcing seniors to enroll in new private coverage, ends Medicare by eliminating everything that has defined the program for the last 46 years."
But Politifact concluded in April that "we don't agree [...] that the proposal ends Medicare." That should set off some alarm bells: As fact-checks go, "we don't agree" is remarkably weak tea. As justification for naming something the "Lie of the Year," it's an embarrassment.
Paul Krugman and Dan Kennedy and Steve Benen and Jonathan Cohn and Jonathan Chait and Matthew Yglesias and David Weigel, among countless others, have debunked Politifact's ruling, which holds that as long as something called "Medicare" has something to do with health care for the elderly, it's a lie to say the program has ended, no matter how "dramatic" the "change of course" has been. Even Robert VerBruggen of the conservative National Review has written that Politifact "does not make a good case" and that the Democratic claim does not "rise to the level of 'lie,' much less 'Lie of the Year.'"
The incoherence of Politifact's ruling is driven home by its repeated statements that the claim "end Medicare as we know it" is significantly different from -- and more justifiable than -- the statement "end Medicare." This is nonsensical hair-splitting. Medicare isn't a broad concept; it's a specific, concrete program. Ending it "as we know it" is ending it. Otherwise, ending it would require ending it as we don't know it, which would be a neat trick. (Revealingly, Politifact has been confused by their own hair-splitting: After having declared "as we know it" a crucial qualifier on multiple occasions, they shifted course and claimed "the GOP proposal does not 'end Medicare as we know it.'")