Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: What Politifact Should Do Now

Posted at 12:51 pm, December 21st, 2011
Dan Froomkin Mug

Yesterday, I sent an email to Politifact editor Bill Adair, expressing my horror over his group’s decision to designate “Republicans voted to kill Medicare” as the “lie of the year.” (See, for an exegesis of that misbegotten choice, Steve Benen, Paul Krugman, Jamison Foser, Charles Pierce, Jason Linkins, et. al.)

“Take it back quickly and explain the (probably self-inflicted) pressures you were under, and perhaps you can rehabilitate yourselves. Perhaps,” I wrote in my email. “This really makes me sick at heart. You have taken a wonderful idea — and a lot of good work — and perverted it beyond belief.”

I haven’t heard back.

So today, I’m sending him a draft of what I imagine his explanation should look like (purely based on my conjectures about what happened). It goes like this:

To our readers,

We owe everyone an enormous apology for choosing what is, ultimately, a true statement as our “lie of the year”. As hard as it may be to believe, our intentions were good. What happened was that we made a series of poor decisions, largely based on how we wanted to be perceived, and lost track of our core mission.

In the hopes that this can be a learning experience for everyone — as well as an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the business of actually checking facts and calling out lies — I’d like to explain what happened. Because I’m afraid we’re not alone in making this sort of mistake.

At Politifact, we take what we do seriously. We think it’s important. We think that calling out lies is an essential journalistic function, necessary to limit their spread  and to create a political downside to their use. We don’t see enough of it out there, and we want to inject more into the political discourse. This is not a partisan position.

So it’s really frustrating when we get written off as liberal.

We see our jobs as being the referees, not taking sides. But as anyone who is paying attention knows, there are an awful lot of really big Republican whoppers out there. So whenever a significant Democratic statement comes along that we can find fault with, we do. And so do our brethren in the fact-checking business.

That’s why we jumped on the Medi-scare charge. While essentially true, it probably went a bit too far. Of course Republicans voted to fundamentally change Medicare, but we felt on solid ground pointing out that the Democrats neglected to mention that the GOP would replace it with something with the same general goal, and that their ads showed old people, when the effects would only be felt by future old people.

OK, maybe it was a stretch. But we took it, and so did and the Washington Post, equally eager to be able to cast a pox on both houses, not just one.

Then, at year’s end, when it came time to choose our finalists, we felt they obviously couldn’t all be from the Republican side of the aisle, so we scrounged up four from Democrats, including that one, to put into the mix.

Then, when it came time to choose the winner, we convinced ourselves that it would be a statement of our independence to pick it over the one the readers chose: The repeated GOP insistence that the economic stimulus created “zero jobs.” (We should have listened to you.)

What we lost sight of, in this process of deciding what would reflect best on us, was that the Democratic claim wasn’t really a lie in the first place. Succumbing to our self-inflicted pressure to win credibility from both sides, we forgot that our mission is not to be perceived as credible, but to actually stand for the truth.

It wasn’t until the blistering critiques from journalists we respect started flooding in that we looked back at what we’d done, and we felt horror as well.

None of this is an excuse. It’s just an explanation. It is our deepest hope that at least something good can come from this if it can be a learning experiences — and not just for us. This unfortunately is a drama that recreates itself frequently in America’s newsrooms. Bad journalistic decisions are routinely being made in response to the feeling that newsrooms need to rise above the partisan fracas and be seen as unbiased.

This has been a problem for decades — as long as conservatives have used the fact that  the media is full of liberals to challenge reporting they don’t agree with. But lately, with a sharp rhetorical turn by the Republican Party and the rise of media outlets that will champion a partisan position no matter how little it is based in reality, things have gotten much, much worse. One cannot, as a reasonable journalist whatever one’s political inclinations, escape the fact that many of the core elements of the modern GOP political platform are based on lies.

Yes, lies.

Lies like the one you readers told us we should have picked as the “lie of the year”. Lies like that regulations are what’s holding back economic growth, that global warming is a myth, that raising taxes on the one percent would reduce job creation.

Normally, as journalists, we avoid the word lie like the plague.  In fact, you may have noticed that even us fact-checkers prefer euphemisms, like “pants on fire” or “four Pinocchios” or “whoppers”.

Lying requires the intent to deceive, and we hesitate to speak authoritatively to motive.

But we don’t need a Lee Atwater-esque deathbed confession to know that Republican leaders are engaged in a campaign of intentional mendacity. They know the truth. They also know how to sway the voters. And in this case, they have chosen some very effective lies.

And we should distinguish between lies and ignorance. In fact, in retrospect, two of our other finalists weren’t really lies, rather they were shocking examples of stupidity and ignorance. It’s entirely plausible that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann really did believe that the vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation and that Sen. Jon Kyl really did think that abortion services are “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

The reason we exist is to provide an alternative to the kind of political reporting that takes what a candidate says and judges its effectiveness, rather than its veracity — that weighs in exclusively on who’s winning or losing, who’s playing the game better.

But ultimately, we ended up playing into the hands of those who play the game by lying.

We’re very sorry, and from this point forward, we’ll simply call it as we see it, and let the chips fall where they may. Ultimately, that’s the only way we’ll win any respect from anyone.

Bill, feel free to edit this as you see fit. But for all our sakes, please don’t dig yourself in any deeper.

10 Responses to “What Politifact Should Do Now”

  1. Woody Wiqiliques Konopak says:

    Politifact is too tarnished, in my eyes, ever to serve any plausible role as an unbiased critic, again.
    The ‘truth,’ it has been said, has usually got a “liberal” cast to it.
    That’s uncomfortable for them, but disregarding it does harm to their credibility.
    This is NOT the first time they’ve played fast and losoe with semantics to make themselves look sympathetic to the Rightards and fucktards. It’s a regular event.
    Fuck ‘em, Dan. They’re dead to me…

  2. Mark Gisleson says:

    Isn’t Politifact owned by the Poynter Institute? The same Poynter Institute that just ran Jim Romenesko off by subjecting him to a ridiculous rewriting of the rules for his pioneering media criticism blog?

    I really don’t understand why none of the articles about this bogus “Lie of the Year” mention the Poynter connection. Poynter’s on a crash and burn course for “Pants on Fire” oblivion as the worst factchecking organization since Accuracy In Media.

  3. Robert Killoren says:

    I was utterly shocked when I heard this reported on NPR… I nearly drove off the road. I’m still trying to figure out what was untrue about that statement, especially since nearly everyone added the “as we know it” to the line. I was equally shocked that I never heard anyone on NPR challenge the accuracy of Politifact’s assertion. Also in a year that saw the most outrageous, unqualified, stupendous lies out of the mouths of Rupert Murdoch, John Boehner, Roger Ailes, and virtually every news personality on Fox News how in the world did they pick that one?

  4. Aaron Lercher says:

    The interesting question for me is (as a librarian I teach information literacy): What does Politifact, an important media organization, consider to be a fact and what does it consider to be a lie? Also, is their view on this representative of any significant group of views?
    Probably the most valuable part of what Medicare expenditures buy is the guarantee of access to healthcare. The guarantee is intangible, yet it is probably the most valuable part of the program, and that is precisely what Ryan would abolish.
    Politifact’s response to Sherrod Brown’s June 20, 2011 newsletter says, for example, “Changing the payment method is not the same as ending the entire program.” Some of Politifact’s other statements focus on the semantics of whether Medicare would still “exist” despite changing “significantly” or “dramatically,” or only “as we know it.” (This reminds me of Bill Clinton’s, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”) But this is dancing around the idea of intangible assets, such as the guarantee offered by Medicare.
    There are other very popular ideas in US politics that deny that intangible assets have value. The gold bugs’ denial that paper or fiat money bears value is another such idea.
    So here’s an answer to my question. Politifact has fallen for a confidence game that is very popular now. The game is this: Start with something you heavily rely on, and which is really quite reliable or at least as reliable as can be expected. US treasury bonds or Medicare are examples, or perhaps some reliable computer software. Then scare you into thinking it actually is unreliable. Then offer to sell you something that to you, now that you are good and scared, seems more reliable than the now seemingly unreliable asset.
    We might call this con, “Scareware.”
    So Politifact’s institutionalized skepticism is used against it, by getting it to deny that an intangible asset is really valuable.

  5. stephen olson says:

    The fact that Republicans are lying and misleading every time they move their lips is “old news.” So how do you generate any interest out of reporting old news? Simple answer is that you can’t. So, make up some new news. The Liberals lie, too. Almost as much. Just not as often. And maybe they just interpret things different, as opposed to must making stuff up. But that’s newers news, and look, everybody’s talking about us, so we MUST mean something. Right. I mean, we stand for SOMETHING. Don’t we?

  6. Lex says:

    You’re giving Adair et al. more credit than he deserves, I think. It’s not just that they’ve been mau-maued into false equivalence; they have dramatically lower expectations for Republicans than for Democrats. That’s not confusion. It’s corruption.

  7. John Gordon says:

    I read politifacts response to the criticism. They are digging deeper.

    You were far too kind to Politifact.

  8. Roland Melnick says:

    “This is NOT the first time they’ve played fast and losoe with semantics to make themselves look sympathetic to the Rightards and fucktards. It’s a regular event.
    Fuck ‘em, Dan. They’re dead to me…”

    Wow…what a highbrow level of discourse we have going on here.

    Fact is that politicians lie. Name one who hasn’t.

  9. Blue Meme says:

    Politifact had the (self-appointed) task of finding the lie of the year, and — lo and behold — effectively chose themselves!

    Reminds me of how Cheney ended up as Dubya’s VP.

  10. daphne says:

    to Roland: that’s some lousy apologism, not to mention an irrelevant argument. Only question is whether you lied or are merely ignorant.

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