How Republicans Learned to Love PolitiFact

Hating on the fact-checking site was a favorite conservative pastime—until it named President Obama's promise about healthcare plans the lie of they year.
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RNC staffers deliver a "Lie of the Year" trophy to the office of Senator Jeff Merkley.(Via @GOP)

How quickly they forget.

Republicans have a new weapon in their arsenal against Obamacare after PolitiFact awarded Barack Obama its ignoble "Lie of the Year" for his bogus claim that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it."

Armed with the imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize-winning outfit, Republicans have taken to the Senate floor brandishing giant PolitiFact posters. Fox News has touted the award as proof of Obama's inherent mendacity. And the Republican National Committee is even delivering tiny trophies (made in China) to a dozen Democratic lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices to congratulate them on the un-prestigious win. It's "no small fib," the RNC said, and it's "doubtful Obamacare would have passed without that lie."

You'd expect nothing less, of course. In politics, if your opponent gets called out for blatantly lying by a respected fact-checker, you want the world to know about it.

But it's more than a bit ironic to see conservatives touting PolitiFact as a trusted arbiter of truth considering they've spent the past four years trying to discredit the site as untrustworthy and biased, investigated its reporters and editors, and more often than not found their own "pants on fire."

In 2009 and 2010, it was the GOP who earned the "Lie of the Year" prize for claims related to Obamacare—"Death panels" and "a government takeover of health care"—and last year, Mitt Romney earned the dishonor for an ad about the auto industry.

For that and other crimes—a study based on PolitiFact data suggested that Republicans lie three times more often than Democrats—conservatives declared war on the site.

The Virginia Republican Party compiled an 86-page opposition research file last year on the Richmond-based state affiliate, calling the Virginia PolitiFact "biased" and "lacking in objectivity." Following their lead, national Republicans began "dispatching truth squads nationwide to question 'rulings' from other state PolitiFacts units and dig into the political leanings of reporters," as The Washington Examiner reported. This effort including digging up "the party registration of reporters or editors" and "looking over the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the reporters and editors for hint of bias."

"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," Mitt Romney's pollster said after the campaign got caught bending the truth on several occasions.

When PolitiFact rated a particular Romney claim as false, his policy director emailed the site's editors to say they had an "embarrassing bias and lack of journalistic standards," and that "your analysis in this instance was so inadequate that the piece ended up being little more than Obama for America spin." Breitbart.com's coverage of the exchange carried the triumphant headline: "Romney Puts PolitiFact on the Ropes," with a picture of Romney posing as a strong man with his fists above his head.

It's part of a larger, deeply ingrained conservative narrative that distrusts the mainstream media as a hopelessly biased organ of the left. The right-leaning Media Research Center puts up billboards, hands out bumper stickers, and even flies planes trailing giant banners that read "Don't believe the liberal media." By "liberal media," they don't mean The Nation and MSNBC, they mean ABC, CNN, The New York Times, etc.

"PolitiFact is not that honest fact-checker," Jon Cassidy explained in a lengthy takedown of PolitiFact in the conservative website TownHall, written during the height of the 2012 campaign.

But Mark Hemingway in 2011 published the definitive conservative take on fact checkers in the Weekly Standard. His 3,500 word essay, "Lies, Damned Lies and Fact Checking," prompted praise on the right and introspective debate in the mainstream press. A sample:

If the stated goal seems simple enough​—​providing an impartial referee to help readers sort out acrimonious and hyperbolic political disputes​—​in practice PolitiFact does nothing of the sort.

Today, however, Republicans suddenly find PolitiFact's ratings credible and worthy of using as a cudgel against Democrats. Is PolitiFact still in the tank for Obama if it calls him the year's biggest liar? And if it's so dishonest, can we trust them when they say the president bent the truth?

This kind of badgering of the refs is hardly unique to right. Liberals have exploded at PolitiFact when its rulings don't go their way plenty of times. Rachel Maddow once directed a monologue at the site, a frequent foil of the MSNBC host's, where she declared: "You are truly terrible ... [you] just make this stuff up."

For Angie Holan, editor of the national site, which is based at the Tampa Bay Times, the bipartisan criticism is evidence that they're doing something right. "Most of us are baseball fans at PolitiFact, and we've noticed that factcheckers are kind of like umpires. Everybody loves—and hates—the umps at one point or another," she said in an email.

But while the left has protested certain rulings, it hasn't engaged in the same kind of wholesale campaign to discredit fact checkers like the right has. It doesn't have the same inherent distrust of the media.

Will conservatives change their view of PolitiFact now that its sided with them? If past is precedent, the good will only last until the next negative ruling against your side.

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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