Testing the Truth-o-Meter

PolitiFact’s editor on those fiery pants

I never thought I’d hear a grown man say he was “comfortable that ‘pants on fire’ was the right call.” But that’s what PolitiFact editor and St. Petersburg Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair told me today.

We were discussing a controversial ruling his site issued on a political ad put out by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The ad, which aims to scare seniors by declaring that Republicans have just voted to end Medicare, was given the lowest possible rating on PolitiFact’s “Truth-o-meter,” which defines statements, documents, ads, and other such declarations as True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False, or, for the most egregiously misleading cases, like the DCCC ad, “Pants on Fire.”

The decision proved contentious—a number of readers wrote to PolitiFact to complain that the site “blew it on this one” or that PolitiFact had “jumped the shark.” Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo took issue with the ruling, too, writing a report titled “PolitiFact Insist Republicans Don’t Want to End Medicare.” But when I spoke to Adair Thursday afternoon, he was sticking with the decision. Liar, liar—you know the rest.

Both sides have a point—PolitiFact’s being the sharper, in my view—and we will get to that. But more interesting than the details of this mini controversy about a standard-issue political ad are the questions it raises about the PolitiFact method and the use of its Truth-o-meter. The truth, or at least the truthiness, of some matters, seems to lie in degrees that Adair’s innovative six-level gauge may not quite capture.

Not that that means you shouldn’t try.

Let’s take a look at the ad in question.

The ad is one of those ideas that probably worked fine on paper but falls pretty flat on screen. It depicts an elderly man working at a lemonade stand, and then mowing a lawn, and finally showing up at what appears to be a bachelorette party, in a fireman’s outfit, and asking (loudly), “Did someone call the fire department? Because it’s about to get hot in here.” Sheesh.

The ad proclaims, in title cards that come between the costume changes, that “Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care because Republicans voted to end Medicare.” (Our emphasis.) There is no mention that the plan will never make it through the current Senate, but if you were making the ad you probably wouldn’t mention that either. The idea is to push back against Republican proposals, reframe the debate, scare the elderly, get votes, and so on.

The folks at PolitiFact went through their usual drill for the ad and issued it their strongest scolding. After a line editor and two other editors met to discuss the piece—forming what Adair calls a “Truth-o-Meter panel”—PolitiFact concluded glibly: “The ad’s aged firefighter says, ‘Did someone call the fire department? Because it’s about to get HOT in here!’ We agree. Pants on Fire!”

From the PolitiFact verdict:

Democrats, including Obama, have said the plan would end Medicare “as we know it,” a critical qualifier. But the 30-second ad from the DCCC makes a sweeping claim without that important qualifier.

Another problem with the ad is that it claims that participants would have to find $12,500 to pay for Medicare. That number is based on statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The ad doesn’t mention, though, that the number includes money that would go to Medicare in any case. The CBO estimates beneficiaries would contribute about $6,150 in premiums in 2022 if the program isn’t changed at all. So the extra money seniors need to pay under the Republican proposal is more like $6,350.

These are important points, as is the overall one that PolitiFact makes: that despite dramatic changes to Medicare—notably, the government would subsidize private plans rather than pay doctors and hospitals set fees for care—Medicare would still exist in name and in some form. It just would not be Medicare “as we know it.” Equally important, the vote was essentially symbolic, so any fear of mowing the lawn or life as a Chippendale should be put in a drawer until something more concretely threatening happens in Congress.

PolitiFact also notes that seniors would still be offered some coverage and the program’s budget would grow as it ages. (PolitiFact’s point that the man in the ad would not be subject to the Ryan plan because he is not currently under fifty-five seems a bit much, as the ad could be read as featuring one of those under-fifty-fives twenty years from now. Though I am probably being generous, given that the DCCC is clearly baiting seniors with the ad.)

TPM’s Beutler—who comes at this with a definite point of view—takes issue with the PolitiFact assessment. In the lede to a piece on the PolitiFact story, Beutler asks: “If Democrats proposed to turn Medicare into a system that only provided free veterinary services to seniors, would Republicans be lying to say Dems wanted to ‘end Medicare,’ without including the caveat ‘as we know it’? Of course not. But that’s more or less the charge PolitiFact is leveling at Democrats over a new DCCC ad (below) which flatly charges Republicans with proposing to ‘end Medicare.’”

Err, not really. As already mentioned, Republicans did not, as the ad suggests, vote to end Medicare. Rather, they voted—in the lower house—for a plan that would change Medicare, were it to reach the president’s desk and be signed into law. Which it won’t. The ad mentions none of this, instead leaving its bold claim hanging like a piƱata for PolitiFact’s batsmen.

Beutler also writes that PolitiFact’s analysis “elides the fact that Medicare currently guarantees specific services, which the private insurers won’t be bound to provide under the GOP plan. Indeed, the law President Lyndon Johnson signed in 1965 created a national health insurance system that entitled the elderly to have a defined array of health care services paid on their behalf by the government.” If Medicare isn’t really Medicare, then is it Medicare at all?

One can see where Beutler is coming from. If the Ryan plan that was voted through by Republicans were to become law, then Medicare as we currently recognize it would eventually cease to exist. So the gist is right, sort of, after a lot of “if”s and “were”s.

The question in this case seems to be if that is enough “if”s and “were”s to qualify the ad for PolitiFact’s harshest ruling.

Both sides of this argument have a point. Technically, the ad is not correct. That matters, and it’s thanks to the work of outfits like PolitiFact that we can pick truth from fiction on a number of issues. But PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” assessment still feels unduly harsh for some reason. What makes this, for instance, not simply “False”? Or, given that it is a missing phrase away from seeming quite reasonable, “barely true?” Or, if you don’t buy that—that the numbers are wrong and the vote is not binding is pretty damning—wouldn’t misleading be a more accurate description than “outright lie”? Perhaps not, but there is a debate to be had that exists outside the bounds of labels.

What might be really at issue here is the problem of a system like PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter, the project’s defining feature. After well-researched and nuanced analyses of often poorly researched, blunt political statements, PolitiFact is forced, by its design, to issue what amount to the kinds of colorful stickers an elementary school teacher might issue: “Half True!” “Pants on Fire!” Those labels are effective in setting tongues wagging and for offering the snappiest of snapshots to political web surfers, but they can also undercut the work that goes into arriving at them.

Adair says that while there are drawbacks to the scheme, the Truth-O-Meter, and other snapshot fact-check devices like it, ultimately adds value to the political discourse. When PolitiFact was starting almost four years ago, Adair says, “The idea was to use a device that would show people the relative accuracy of a statement and to use a device that would show that very concisely.” The concise rulings, says Adair, “are a tremendous reader service.” They cut through the political rhetoric to issue concise judgments and when pooled, like on this page breaking down the statements of Michele Bachmann, they can reveal quite a lot about a candidate or organization’s commitment to accuracy. “The tradeoff,” admits Adair, “is that sometimes complexity doesn’t fit neatly into our six ratings.”

Conciseness might be the problem. As Roger Ebert doesn’t consider two different films to which he awards three stars to be of the exact equal quality or entertainment value, the severity of two “Pants on Fire”s can also differ. Sometimes greatly. Unless a reader goes beyond the gimmick, they wouldn’t know. And the gimmick being there—making life easier and reading time shorter—might encourage them to stay put. A reader who just saw the DCCC ad labeled “Pants on Fire” wouldn’t know that there was at least a basis for its claims. All he’d know would be that the DCCC is a liar, liar.

Adair doesn’t see it that way. The rulings don’t undercut the more nuanced reports; they potentially lead readers to them. At least, the readers that we could expect to want to read a long piece. “I’ve always thought about the design of PolitiFact as layered,” says Adair. “If you want an overview of how accurate a political statement is, all you need to do is look at the person who said it, the quote, and the rating, and you may have all that you need to know about that. But if you want to know more, you can read the full article, which are detailed, and always include sources.”

There’s a practical matter, too. “We’ve had long articles about fact-checking for a long time,” says Adair. “The problem with long articles is, people don’t read them at all.”

Best get to a ruling then.

There is little doubt that in fighting for nuance and detail, tools like the Truth-o-Meter can themselves be reductive. “Pants on Fire” does not tell us much, and may itself mislead at times. But the gauge does not act in isolation—it is bolstered by solid, transparent reporting, and through its very webby and gimmicky reductiveness draws attention to that more substantive reporting.

And like all most responsible news organizations, PolitiFact is open about corrections—it has even changed its mind on occasion and switched a Truth-o-Meter decision. Beutler’s reaction is part of PolitiFact at work, in fact. [Updated with link.] “We recognize that often some of our biggest fans are going to disagree with some of our rulings,” says Adair. “And that’s part of the process.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.