Why I’m Boycotting PolitiFact

Reporters at PolitiFact.com have used me as a resource half a dozen times or so when fact-checking something someone said about health care reform. Sometimes we disagree about where the truth lies, but I’ve always been happy to help. That changed recently, and I should let PolitiFact’s reporters know why.

At the end of each year, PolitiFact sifts through the many claims its reporters have deemed untrue and selects one to be their Lie of the Year. The Lie of the Year award is easily PolitiFact’s biggest publicity-generator. In 2009, they picked Sarah Palin’s “death panels” claim. In 2010, they picked the claim that the new health care law is a “government takeover” of health care.

Looking at those two Lies of the Year together brought a couple of things home for me.

The first is not so much that each of those statements is actually factually true; it is rather that they are true for reasons that PolitiFact failed to consider. PolitiFact’s “death panels” fact-check never considered whether President Obama’s contemporaneous “IMAC” proposal would, under standard principles of administrative law, enable the federal government to ration care as Palin claimed. (In an August 2009 oped for the Detroit Free Press, I explain how the IMAC proposal would do just that.) PolitiFact’s “government takeover” fact-check hung its conclusion on the distinction between “public” vs. “private” health care, without considering whether that distinction might be illusory. (In a January 2011 column for Kaiser Health News, I cite well-respected, non-partisan sources – and even one of President Obama’s own health care advisors – to demonstrate that this distinction is illusory.) Aside from whether they arrived at the truth, each of these fact-checks was woefully incomplete.

Second, PolitiFact’s decision to go further by declaring those statements lies highlights a logical flaw in their Lie of the Year award. For a statement to be a lie, the speaker must know or believe it to be false. In neither the case of “death panels” nor “government takeover” has PolitiFact offered any evidence that the speakers knew or believed their statements to be false. Until PolitiFact offers such evidence, it has no factual basis for calling either statement a lie. Moreover, if PolitiFact’s reporters believe that Sarah Palin et alia believe that what they said was true – and I would be willing to bet good money that they do – then PolitiFact’s reporters know that their past two Lies of the Year aren’t really lies.

I have concluded that the errors in those two fact-checks, plus the fundamental (and rather ironic) error at the heart of PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year award, are serious enough that until PolitiFact addresses them I can no longer serve as a resource for PolitiFact in good conscience. Since January, I have declined maybe four requests for help from PolitiFact reporters, and will politely continue to do so until they address these errors.

Some conservatives think PolitiFact is a left-wing outfit. I don’t think that’s true, and I have defended PolitiFact against that charge. I believe that PolitiFact’s reporters are earnestly doing their best to get at the truth. But there’s a tension between that belief and these errors. Whether PolitiFact recognizes and addresses that tension will tell us a lot about PolitiFact.