The problem for the fact checkers

at 05:13 PM ET, 12/20/2011

In 2009, PolitiFact awarded its annual Lie of the Year distinction to the claim that the Affordable Care Act included death panels. In 2010, Lie of the Year went to Republicans for saying the Affordable Care Act was a “government takeover of health care.” This year, Democrats got the distinction for saying that Paul Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare.”


Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin. (Joshua Roberts - Bloomberg)

This has left a lot of people scratching their head. Medicare is currently a public, single-payer, defined-benefit health-care system. Ryan’s budget would turn it into a defined-contribution system relying on private insurers. But it would still be called Medicare, and it would still offer some amount of health-care coverage to seniors over age 65.

I’m not really interested in debating whether this actually ends Medicare, or merely ends Medicare as we currently know it. I would say the Ryan budget contained one of the year’s major lies: Its savings relied on either capping Medicare’s rate of cost growth at inflation — which every serious health-care policy expert will tell you is completely impossible. Its savings were thus illusory. Whether the Ryan budget ends Medicare, it doesn’t end the deficit.

The meta-point here is that we’re seeing, in real time, why the “fact checker” model is probably unsustainable. A few weeks ago, the conservative Weekly Standard published a cover story called “Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’”. Subhead: “The liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.” Over at Big Government, John Nolte put it more bluntly: “MSM fact-checkers are an absolute cancer on our political process, a cynical and partisan conceit created by the left-wing media that allows them to arbitrarily judge what is and is not the truth, all in an effort to bring down Republicans and boost Democrats.”

Steve Benen, Paul Krugman, and others speculate that PolitiFact’s decision to choose a claim associated with Democrats as ‘Lie of the Year’ was a tacit answer to these attacks. ‘See? We’re not liberal! We’re defending Paul Ryan!’ If they had chosen one of their other Lie of the Year contenders — for instance, the claim that the stimulus created “zero” jobs — they might have lost the right forever.

And that, ultimately, is the problem with the fact checker model. They have no actual power, so their only influence comes from the public’s sense of their legitimacy. And about half of the public leans towards one party and about half of the public leans toward the other. That means PolitiFact and these other outlets need to find some uneasy balance between the parties, too. But that just means the parties will have plenty of opportunities to decide that these are hackish, partisan operations. Conservatives got there a few weeks ago, and now liberals are following.

The likely result is that these outlets will be listened to when one side or the other finds it convenient and ignored otherwise. Rather than policing the political discourse, they’ll just become one more bludgeon within it.

Call it the Ryan problem: Ryan actually campaigned to get PolitiFact to name “end Medicare” their Lie of the Year. And yet Ryan is one of the prime offenders behind the 2010 Lie of the Year — that the Affordable Care Act was a “government takeover” of the health-care system. But Ryan hasn’t apologized for those comments or even, as far as I can tell, stopped making that argument. He wants PolitiFact on his side when it’s useful for him, and he’ll ignore the outlet when it isn’t.

Much as politicians have figured out how to game the he-said, she-said conventions of news reporting, they’re figuring out how to game the fact checkers. And so the umpires become unwitting players in the very game they’re trying to referee.

 
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