Politifact had plenty of good choices for “Lie of the Year.” The reader’s poll was won by “The economic stimulus created ‘zero jobs,’” from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Republicans. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office credits the American Recovery Act with creating or saving more than 3 million jobs. Number two in the poll was “Abortion services are ‘well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,’” according to Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), which was such a whopper that his spokesman could only offer the explanation that it was “not intended to be a factual statement.” The actual proportion is around 3 percent.  

At least those statements could be true in theory. The most shockingly false statement probably goes to Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who asserted that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation.

But Politifact, an independent organization associated with the St. Petersburg Times, chose instead a claim that placed third in their poll, thanks to an effort by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) to stuff the ballots. The only problem? The big “lie” is true. “Republicans voted to end Medicare,” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Democrats, is the winner, despite the fact that Republicans did indeed vote to end Medicare when they voted for Ryan’s budget. “The plan was distorted and attacked again and again,” Politifact asserts.

Ryan’s plan would replace Medicare for everyone currently younger than 55 with a system of vouchers that seniors can use to buy health insurance. The value of those vouchers would be limited to the Consumer Price Index plus 1 percent. As healthcare costs escalate that would become increasingly insufficient to buy comprehensive health insurance. Politifact gives three reasons that this isn’t ending Medicare. 

• [Democrats] ignored the fact that the Ryan plan would not affect people currently in Medicare—or even the people 55 to 65 who would join the program in the next 10 years.

• They used harsh terms such as “end” and “kill” when the program would still exist, although in a privatized system.

• They used pictures and video of elderly people who clearly were too old to be affected by the Ryan plan. The DCCC video that aired four days after the vote featured an elderly man who had to take a job as a stripper to pay his medical bills.

All three of these reasons are nonsense. As Jonathan Cohn points out, Medicare is a program for seniors, so it only makes sense to use seniors in ads illustrating the impact of the Ryan plan, even though it would affect future rather than current retirees. It also could reduce benefits for current retirees. As Cohn writes:

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.

The most important claim is the other one: that Democrats should not say Ryan would “end” or “kill” Medicare “when the program would still exist, although in a privatized system.” This is the crux of Politifact’s complaint, and it’s simply wrong. Medicare is by definition a public program. Politifact says it’s “mostly true” to say that Ryan would privatize Medicare, but saying it would end Medicare is false. But Medicare is a public program. Privatized Medicare is not Medicare; it’s something else. Medicare is a defined benefit program, not a defined contribution program. If you stop providing health insurance for seniors and instead just give them a voucher, you have abandoned the commitment to meet their healthcare needs. Imagine if, say, Dennis Kucinich proposed that we replace the Defense Department with vouchers to citizens to purchase national defense, would Ryan and other Republicans resist saying that he proposed to end the Defense Department? Would Politifact expect them to?

Republicans will surely be grateful to Politifact, since attacking Republicans for planning to eliminate Medicare is an important Democratic wedge with the GOP’s older constituency in the 2012 elections. Now Republicans will constantly call that claim a lie and cite Politifact. 

It’s too bad, because there’s a real need for independent arbiters of all the lies told by politicians. But Politifact was probably afraid that the truth’s well-established liberal bias would get them tagged as partisans. In 2009 their Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin’s invented “death panels” and in 2010 it was the claim that the Affordable Care Act was a “government takeover of health care.” Presumably they wanted to ding the Democrats this year, and all the competition came from Republicans.

This is a common problem for the mainstream media. They want to present both parties as equally dishonest to burnish their objectivity credentials. Unfortunately, it just happens not to be the case these days.