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 piñata 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.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.