Politifact Is Bad for You

The lefty blogosphere is all hot and bothered at famous fact-checking website Politifact for naming Democrats' claim that the Paul Ryan "Path to Prosperity" would "end Medicare" its 2011 Lie of the Year. And yes, there's a solid argument to be made that Politifact is completely wrong. The bigger problem here, though, is why does anyone care what this gimmicky website has to say, ever?

Politifact took flak for this same judgment earlier in the year, when it labeled the claim "PANTS ON FIRE." That is the cutesy term they use when they consider something a most terrible lie. You know, like "Liar, liar, pants on fire," that thing that people say. As opposed to "four Pinocchios," which the Washington Post fact-checker guy uses. Fact-checkers enjoy using lines from children's taunts and stories, to market themselves.

Politifact considers "end Medicare" a lie because Paul Ryan's plan would keep a program called "Medicare" as the public policy solution to the problem of financing health care for old people. But the "Medicare" program, as long as it's been around, has been a single-payer, fee-for-service model. That's what it is, and that's why it's popular. Ryan's plan (at least that version of it) would eliminate that system and deal with the problem of financing health care for old people with a program of "premium support" — distributing coupons for beneficiaries to purchase a health insurance plan in a managed private market. The coupons would not be indexed to soaring medical inflation, though, giving them depleting value over time. Paul Ryan thinks that managed competition would eventually align the growth in medical inflation with regular ol' topline inflation. People who actually work in health care policy do not. Can you say that a program that keeps the name Medicare, but is in fact a totally different program, "ends Medicare"? Sure.

Politifact's condemnations are flooding in today! Here's Paul Krugman:

The answer is, of course, obvious: the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there's a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they've bent over backwards to appear "balanced" - and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.

And Washington Monthly's Steve Benen:

When an outlet puts "fact" in its name, the standards for accuracy are especially high. When its selecting a Lie of the Year, standards dictate that the falsehood should be overwhelmingly obvious and offensive.

Today, PolitiFact, which relies exclusively on its credibility to affect the political discourse, ought to be ashamed of itself.

But Krugman, Benen and others are only this furious because they've already bought into the gimmick from which Politifact derives all of its power. What Politifact is, really, is just a blog written by some people at the St. Petersburg Times. But since it calls itself Politifact and assigns ratings that you can just glance over, it undeservedly becomes a irresistible cudgel to use against your political opponents. Politifact! It's a portmanteau of "politics" and "facts," so it can't be wrong. And it just labeled your top party message "PANTS ON FIRE," the worst rating imaginable! Too many writers, editors and cable news producers love these easily digestible judgments that they can use, cheaply, when pretending to inform their audiences. And I'd bet top dollar that when Krugman or Benen see Politifact label the next major right wing myth "PANTS ON FIRE," they'll forget all about today's unforgivable crime and tell their readers, Look what Politifact said — PANTS ON FIRE!

This is why I stopped citing Politifact altogether this year, even on the numerous occasions when I think they're right. Why should St. Petersburg Times bloggers' opinions — no offense to them! — carry authoritative power to make final judgments? They're imperfect humans who fact-check political claims, just like every other asshole on the Internet. But people have bought into their branding gimmick, their ratings.

More than anything else, Politifact reminds me of the credit rating agencies. They are just companies that employ credit risk analysts. But since they devised a similarly easily digestible alphanumeric code — AAA, BBB, AA+, whatever — and people have bought into this, they wield immense centralized power over the entire world. But that doesn't mean they won't screw up.

Politifact is dangerous. Stop reading it. Stop reading the "four Pinocchios" guy too. Stop using some huckster company's stupid little phrases or codes or number systems when it's convenient, and read the actual arguments instead. You're building a monster.