Fact-Checking: A Clarification

Well perhaps I got a bit carried away in my previous post on this subject. Maybe it was a little over the top to say that Glenn Kessler is no better than a child murderer and should be fired and fed to wild dogs. Although I did mean this literally--I don't know why some suspected me of satire--it could be that hysterical indignation isn't my thing after all. In the end, you can't deny who you are, can you. Let me try a calmer pass at this issue.

Consider two statements: the Republicans' claim that the Affordable Care Act is a "government take-over" of health care, and the Democrats' claim that the GOP is proposing the "end of Medicare". Factcheck.org (let's give Kessler a pass this time) has ruled both these claims unacceptable: it calls the first a "tired old falsehood" and says the second is one of the worst "whoppers" of last year.

Both of the statements in question are exaggerations, and nobody needs Factcheck--"A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center", which sounds wonderfully authoritative--to point that out. Politicians exaggerate. It's what they do. But neither statement is simply false. Each expresses a defensible point of view.

At the very least, the Republicans want to change Medicare radically. A so-called Medicare option remains under their latest proposal, though its viability would be in doubt; and, yes, the existing program continues for those approaching retirement. Nonetheless, the plan is avowedly intended to end Medicare as we know it. That's the whole idea. It's absurd to dismiss what the Democrats said as a lie.

What about the idea that ACA is a "government takeover" of health care? Again, it's an obvious exaggeration. Again, it's intended to alarm. The reformed system, Democrats fairly point out, will still be mostly private: For good or ill, that was the point. But the reform does require a huge increase in government regulation. The combination of guaranteed issue and risk-adjustment will need to be minutely overseen, and this is where much of the unavoidable complexity of ACA resides. It surely isn't out of bounds to call a vast expansion of regulatory oversight a government take-over.

Both those ratings were false. That's just my opinion, I claim no special status for it, so you can feel free to take it or leave it.

Now, granted, the "fact-checkers" do a certain amount of analysis before arriving at their ratings. I've no objection to the analysis part. Done well, which it sometimes is, the analysis part is a valuable public service. The asinine ratings--whoppers, pants-on-fire, four Pinocchios--undo any benefit.

I say this for three reasons. First, and forgive me for dwelling on the point, the "fact-checking" conceit is false advertising. In the end, the "fact-checkers" are weighing arguments, not checking facts. That's commentary. Don't pretend to be doing something cleaner and more authoritative than plain old punditry.

Second, the focus on political slogans and rhetorical assertions is a distraction. Who cares whether "end of Medicare" or "government takeover" gets three or four Pinocchios? We should be discussing what's good and bad about ACA, how to improve it, whether and how to replace it, not obsessing over the "honesty" of either side's rhetorical flourishes. Politicians spin. Color me amazed.

Third, and most important, is a related point: This vogue for "fact-checking", far from raising the level of debate in this country, as it was presumably intended to do, is driving it down to new depths of infantilism. How do the "fact-checkers" get their page-views? By declaring statements of one side or the other illegitimate. That's the appetite they're feeding. Instead of saying, "You're mistaken and here's why," people who need no additional encouragement to be angry and unreasoning are empowered to say, like a petulant child, "Pants on fire, you're a liar."

What do you do if your opponent isn't just wrong, but is determined to lie and keep on lying? You ignore him, and talk among your friends. I'd say there was plenty of that even before the brave new "fact-checkers" came along, but for the sake of a dumb marketing gimmick--pants-on-fire, four Pinocchios--they're making things worse. Seething intolerance for the other side's point of view is the main thing wrong with American politics right now. The "fact-checkers" sure didn't start it, but they've made themselves part of the problem.