Lies, Damned Lies, and Politifact

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The quarrel over Politifact's "Lie of the Year" is missing the point. The fact-checker gave its annual accolade to the Democrats' claim that Paul Ryan's budget plan would "end Medicare". Liberals are rightly annoyed. Paul Krugman says Politifact is dead to him: guilty of False Balance, a capital crime. He reckons their calculation was obvious. Politifact's previous Lies of the Year were Republican lies: facts be damned, it was time for a Democratic winner.

As you know I rarely agree with Krugman about balance--in my world, balanced is better than unbalanced--but I bet Krugman is right about Politifact's thinking. The claim that the Ryan plan would "end Medicare" is at least defensible, and nobody denies that the plan would end Medicare as we know it (that's the idea). But the main thing here is that, whether they realize it or not, Politifact and the other fact-checking outfits rarely confine themselves to checking facts. They're judging claims purportedly based on facts, or interpretations of facts. Not the same.

The giveaway is their grading system. You check a fact by asking whether it is true or false. If true or false is not good enough to assess the thing you are checking, then the thing you are checking is not a fact. Politifact has a six-point grading system: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and pants on fire. These are grades you might apply to bundles of facts or claims based (with more or less validity) on bundles of facts, but not to facts.

Pants on fire, by the way, is said to mean not just false but ridiculous. I honestly can't see how the Democrats' claim about Ryan's Medicare plan meets that standard. And yet another step (intent to deceive) would be required to get from ridiculous falsehood to "lie", let alone "lie of the year".

But I digress. Once you can't say true or false, opinion enters in. What is the difference between "mostly true" and "mostly false", for instance? The various facts underlying a complicated claim can't just be added up. Some facts count more than others, and which count most is a matter of judgement--one on which reasonable people might actually disagree. Such is politics.

Here's a fact: though politicians pretend otherwise, politics isn't mainly about facts. Politicians mostly disagree not about known facts but about what the facts might be if we knew them, or about which facts matter most, or about what one should believe, given certain facts. Fact-checking gets you only so far.

Nonetheless, Politifact and the others do good work. When they take a doubtful claim apart and test its presumed factual basis, they shed light. This was true of their original analysis of "ending Medicare". Still, grading complex and deliberately tendentious claims with a single reading on a "truth-o-meter" or whatever is not just juvenile but also at odds with their claim to be humble fact-checkers. An annual Lie of the Year award explodes that pretension completely.

In the end, they're pundits like the rest of us. Better than most, I'd say, so long as you ignore the grades and read the analysis. More thorough. More balanced. They deserve to live. They're pundits with high standards--but still just pundits.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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