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Facts Are Stupid Things | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Facts Are Stupid Things

My New Think Again column is called “As We Leave Iraq, Remember How We Got In” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “Cuomo Is Still Governor One Percent” and it’s here.

Happy holidays. Now here’s Reed:

Fact-checking, in the New, Old-Fashioned Way
by Reed Richardson

Just in time for Christmas, PolitiFact delivered a big, fat gift to the Republican Party and its efforts to end Medicare. Sure, this gift was wrapped in a tissue-thin veneer of objectivity and held together by a transparently weak ribbon of a qualifier—it was missing the phrase “as we know it”—but when PolitiFact slapped a brazen “Lie of the Year” bow on top, all pretense pretty much disappeared.

The reaction to such a gross distortion, one that no doubt will be featured in GOP campaign ads throughout the general election next fall, was swift and full-throated:

Here’s the inestimable Pierce on its general “pissantery.”

Here’s Jonathan Cohn with an excellent healthcare policy rebuttal.

Here’s Dave Wiegel talking about how the “lie” actually has its origins in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal.

And there were other good points made here, here, here, and here.

Also, I’d just point out that last week in this space I criticized PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” award as a kind of ephemeral, self-promotional PR gimmick. Yes, it can generate a lot of temporary buzz, as all the aforementioned links attest to, but even if it’s accurate, which in this case I don’t believe it is, elevating one comment above all others doesn’t do much for the general tone of political discourse in the long run. Indeed, as a contribution to the discourse, the stunt traffics in the same kind of hyperbole that PolitiFact and the rest of the fact-checking sites supposedly spend the rest of the year unmasking.

This swift pushback to the "Lie of the Year," plus recent criticisms of fact-checking in general from yours truly as well as others from both the left and the right clearly struck a nerve. So much so that Glenn Kessler, author of the Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker” site, published something of a fact-checker cri de coeur yesterday with a (admittedly half tongue-in-cheek) lede of “Fact checkers are under assault!” But to read his otherwise serious defense of what he and others of his journalistic ilk do is to get a rehash of many of the same personal foibles and institutional pathologies that have long plagued the profession.

Read through Kessler’s argument and you’ll soon get served up an old newsroom axiom, one that views criticism as unprincipled, partisan attacks and welcomes praise as genuine sympathy from wholesome readers. (Otherwise known as the “If the left and right both hate me, I must be doing something right” defense.) Likewise, there’s a strong element of the all too common I-know-better arrogance on display here, with Kessler not so subtly intoning his “30 years of writing about Washington institutions.” Such a background can doubtless be a wonderful resource to draw upon, but it can also prove to be a drawback if it hardens anecdotal observations into immovable stereotypes like this:

The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the right assumes the media is out to get them (i.e., see The Weekly Standard) and the left seems to take it as a personal affront when you call them out (see the reaction to PolitiFact.) Maybe Democrats really believe that tale about the left-wing media bias? In any case, this month’s ruckus about fact checkers simply affirms what we’ve learned in our long experience in Washington.

It’s a clever bit of rhetorical jiu jitsu, wrapped up in that favorite journalism weasel word “seems.” By ascribing impure or irrational motives to one’s critics, it’s much easier to simply dismiss their arguments without having to engage them on their merits. So, all this uproar from liberals over calling the ‘GOP is ending Medicare’ claim a lie?—that’s not a warning signal that they may have badly misinterpreted the truth. On the contrary, the vociferousness of the pushback is just more evidence of the left's tetchiness and that fact-checkers like PolitiFact and Kessler got it right.

Further down in Kessler’s piece, while defending his own “Four Pinnochios” rating, he makes a point of addressing a new front in the left’s critique, that Democrats weren’t making the claim up but instead were citing a Journal article (see Weigel’s argument above). Almost lapsing into self-parody, however, Kessler contorts himself around this inconvenient fact thusly:

(Note: Some Democrats have pointed to a Wall Street Journal article as justification for the claim that the GOP would “end” Medicare, but that passage was referring to ending Medicare’s role in directly paying medical bills. The first paragraph of the article said Ryan’s plan would ‘transform the Medicare health program’—a phrasing that is not in dispute.)

To see for yourself, here’s the exact Journal quote in question:

The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills.

The framework for Kessler’s argument here is laughably semantic. Ryan’s plan wouldn’t merely “transform” Medicare, it would “essentially end” it by eliminating its fundamental tenet —a publicly-funded and operated structure—and replacing it with a private, voucher-based platform. Kessler, PolitiFact, and Factcheck.org, also justify their position by saying that Ryan’s plan wouldn’t change Medicare for Americans currently over 55. But because the plan includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, that’s really not true either.

All these too-clever-by-half, fact-check excuses of a Republican assault on Medicare are nothing new, however. Brooks Jackson, the founder of Factcheck.org, was already dabbling in this kind of disingenuous reporting a generation ago. If you recall, it was he who leapt to Newt Gingrich’s defense after the then Speaker made these rather infamous comments about Medicare during a speech to Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers in 1995:

OK, what do you think the Health Care Financing Administration is? It’s a centralized command bureaucracy. It’s everything we’re telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of. Now, we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart, and we don’t think that’s the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it—voluntarily.

Jackson, at the time a CNN reporter, trotted out the ‘dishonest’ label to characterize a left-wing TV ad highlighting Gingrich’s aforementioned ‘wither on the vine’ quote. In Jackson’s eyes, the ad amounted to a “Medi-Scare” campaign, one that took the phrase out of context by not including the earlier sentences. That additional context, he said, proved that Gingrich was merely saying the “Medicare bureaucracy would wither on the vine, notMedicare benefits.”

But like Kessler’s earlier parsing, Jackson’s explanation is yet another classic case of a distinction without a difference. Just how, one wonders, could Medicare benefits remain unaffected if the federal administration in charge of them somehow ceased to exist? Wouldn’t the eventual disappearance of one be necessarily predicated on the extinction of the other?

Now, a politician could make a good faith effort to reform Medicare’s red tape in the interest of better functioning government and preserving benefits for future generations. But that’s clearly not the end game Gingrich was hoping to achieve, partly because it’s long been known that Medicare’s administrative costs are far lower than the private health care sector's.

No, his party’s objections to Medicare were and continue to be based upon conservative dogma. That’s why back then, as now, his party sought to create an alternative, privately-based health care system for seniors despite the prevailing mood of the public, which was, and still is, overwhelmingly satisfied with the current Medicare program. (This obvious disconnect is also why Gingrich talked of having to be “politically smart” about the “transition.”) Put simply, the Republicans’ real goal—whether it was 16 years ago or today—has never been about “protecting” or “transforming” Medicare, but about encouraging or forcing citizens to leave its rolls, thereby gutting its social compact promise and, eventually, ending the program itself.

In another moment of political candor this past May, Gingrich admitted as much when he called the Ryan plan a “radical change” and “right-wing social engineering.” Of course, at the time Gingrich was criticizing it, but after he completed his mandatory bout of self-recrimination for such unalloyed honesty, right-wing Beltway types jumped up to once again provide him political cover for his “wither on the vine” comments back in 1995. Their proof that claims of Gingrich wanting to end Medicare was a lie? You guessed it—Jackson’s fact-check report.

In other words, it was ever thus. Republicans work to undermine the very foundations of our nation’s social fabric and the press obligingly enables those efforts, thanks to its institutional intransigence and a myopic obsession with maintaining objectivity at all costs. If the past is any indication, a generation from now we can fully expect this past week’s sorry “Lie of the Year” debacle to continue to haunt our political debate about Medicare. That is, if there’s a Medicare left to debate.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The Mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada
Dr. A., I know that for you the loss of Christopher Hitchens is personal in addition to the professional loss I feel of losing someone who was always worth reading. On Iraq and his late embrace of people and ideas unworthy of him, I couldn't help but think on hearing the news of the wonderful line from David Potter, like you a more eminent historian than I could ever hope to be. In The Impending Crisis, he described John Calhoun as "the most majestic champion of error since Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost." That was Hitchens, who was also the most majestic champion of right when he was right.

David Richards
Co-Director, The CIRI Human Rights Data Project (and happy subscriber to "The Nation")
Ellington, CT
Hi Eric,

Regarding your "War is Over" blog entry, the reaction this year to the score we (CIRI) gave Israel on freedom of religion has been really interesting in a lot of ways regarding national identity and the relative priorities that define it. One that comes to mind is that they also get the lowest score on torture every year -- putting them in the same cohort as does their religion score -- but one hears not a peep about that. I did an interview with Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Thursday, and they were less interested in Israel's actual scores than the cohort in which a score might place Israel.

Being more-concerned with one's relative respect for human rights rather than one's absolute respect for human rights is a troubling position, morally.

Sidney Gendin
Professor Emeritus, Philosophy of Law
Eastern Michigan University
I am normally a temperate man who prefers giving arguments to heaping abuse on people but you are unconscionable scum. Many things you say are wrongheaded but sometimes you are disgustingly dishonest. I won't bother to detail all this but a simple example is your ugly tantrum against Ralph Nader a few years ago.

It is because of people like you that I no longer read THE NATION. 

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