Fact-Checking Fail of the Year

by Jonathan Cohn | December 20, 2011

Politifact is getting a ton of grief from the left today. And deservedly so. The independent fact-checking organization has selected, as its "lie of the year," the claim that House Republicans want to “kill” or “end” Medicare. Like Steve Benen and Paul Krugman, I think Politifact got this one very, very wrong. And that's no small matter: It's 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.* In the coming months, Politifact's finding is sure to appear prominently in campaign advertising.

Let's review the facts: In 2022, were the House Republican plan to become law, new retirees would no longer have the option of enrolling in the traditional government-run insurance program. Instead, retirees would get a voucher, which they could use to pay for a private insurance policy within a regulated marketplace. The voucher’s value would depend on a formula pegged to the general inflation rate. If it were not enough to pay for a health policy – and most experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, believe it would not be – seniors would have to make up the difference on their own.

One likely consequence is that insurers would begin offering cheaper, but skimpier, benefit plans: Seniors might still be “insured” but they would no longer have comprehensive benefits. Many would simply not be able to pay for their medical care, much as seniors did routinely before 1965, when Medicare came into existence.

Does that amount to ending Medicare? Politifact says no, for two reasons. First, the organization says, Democratic and kindred groups have run ads featuring people who look very old. Since the proposal would only affect people 55 and younger, Politifact argues, that’s misleading. Second, Politifact says, the Republican proposal would leave in place a program that provides the elderly with both financial assistance and access to insurance. Ergo, Medicare would still exist.

Politifact's first claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If the House Republican proposal were to become law, it’s possible (some experts would say likely) that today’s elderly would suffer, because the risk pool for Medicare itself would get sicker and sicker. That would require ever larger subsidies from outside the system. But as the constituency for traditional Medicare shrunk, as elderly beneficiaries died, the political will to make those subsidies would likely ebb. 

Besides, Medicare is a program for senior citizens. It would make more sense to illustrate it with children?

As for the second claim, remember that Republicans are proposing more than a change from government-run insurance to private insurance. As I wrote last night, they're also seeking to break the fundamental compact of Medicare. That compact promises seniors financial security from illness and access to medical care they can afford, in exchange for their having paid taxes into the system during their working lives.

As Igor Volsky wrote a few weeks ago,

Capping costs to beneficiaries, 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.

Politifact’s job is not easy and, mostly, they do a very good job. I've cited their Pulitzer-winning work before and hope I get the chance to do so again. But Politfact and its counterpart, Factcheck.org, are prone to certain errors. Among them is a tendency to confuse statements of opinion, or interpretation, for statements of fact.

Earlier this month, the Boston-based media critic Dan Kennedy had a terrific, sympathetic essay about this. He noted that the claim about ending Medicare falls into this category. In part, the judgment on this issue comes down to whether you think Medicare represents a guarantee of benefits, as I do, or whether it's simply a program that helps old people pay for health care. Maybe there’s no right answer. But there’s no certainly wrong answer, either.

Of course, it’s possible Politifact had another motive, as Krugman suggests: The organization may simply be trying to show that it can be balanced. Conservatives have suggested that fact-checking organizations, like the traditional media, are hopelessly biased against them. A recent cover story by Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard made that claim, noting that fact-checkers had cited Republican lies much more than Democratic lies.

I would argue there’s a good reason to cite Republican lies more than Democratic lies: They have been more plentiful and more egregious in the last few years. Conservatives won't like to hear that, but that's no reason for Politifact to pretend otherwise.

*Politifact is affiliated with the Times. Thanks to reader "rayward" for alerting me to the front page story. Also, I updated this item to note that Politifact's finding will likely end up in many campaign advertisements. Finally, give credit to Paul Waldman of the American Prospect: He saw this one coming.

Photo Credit: The Newseum

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/98747/politifact-lie-of-the-year-end-medicare-true-republican-fact-opinion