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.)

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.