When it comes to factchecking, sooner or later, everyone’s a critic. And those criticisms come mainly in two flavors. One line of attack holds that the factcheckers at PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and their sister sites are slaves to semantics, issuing narrow technical rulings that ignore some more fundamental truth. After all, politicians know how to deceive us with carefully worded cant. Stamping “True” on that rhetoric is like giving them a license to lie.
The more common critique points in the opposite direction. It argues that these so-called factcheckers do violence to the English language by ignoring plain fact and finding ways to complicate what should be black-and-white questions. “PolitiFact, you are fired,” Rachel Maddow declared last year when the site applied too much nuance to President Obama’s State of the Union address. “You are a mess. You are fired. You are undermining the definition of the word ‘fact’ in the English language by pretending to it in your name.”
I’ve had both reactions to rulings that cut against my own (very left) politics, and that’s the point: It’s remarkable, and revealing, how easily we glide from one camp to the other, demanding context and nuance one day and slavish literalism the next. Take the apoplecty among liberal critics this week after PolitiFact awarded a “Half True” to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s claim that the federal deficit is growing. In fact, as the site explained in detail, the deficit has been falling rapidly as the economy recovers. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, health care costs and interest on the debt will start to drive it up again in 2016 and beyond.
That didn’t satisfy Paul Krugman, who warned the ruling would give ammunition to misguided budget-cutters on the right. “This should be simple,” he concluded. “PolitiFact should just rule on the facts … But apparently it can’t do it.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argued that the factcheckers should have ruled the claim “plainly false” with a caveat noting deficits would rise again. MSNBC’s Steve Benen found a colorful analogy:
Imagine we’re driving down the highway in a car and I step on the accelerator. I then assure you, “Don’t worry, the car is slowing down,” despite the fact that the car is speeding up. PolitiFact would apparently say my claim is “half true” because sometime soon, the car will probably decelerate.
Now, you can quibble with the comparison: Do we really have gas-pedal control over the budget? Isn’t the larger point that under current commitments deficits are expected to go up, and keep going up? (Benen also offered a heat wave analogy, which seems more apt.) The language and framing matter a lot, because at root this is an argument about what Cantor meant and how people will interpret his words. Was he trying to mislead voters about the state of the deficit this year, or expressing concern—however misguided his remedies—about the longer-term trend? Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum acknowledged that the kinder interpretation seems reasonable in light of Cantor’s other remarks, even as he called factchecking a “doomed enterprise.”
But compare this episode to the epic backlash after the top factcheckers singled out as one of the most egregious lies of 2011 the Democratic claim that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare.” More context, the left demanded. Krugman explained that the essential nature of the health entitlement would be lost in converting it to some kind of subsidy for private insurance plans. Benen, master of automotive metaphors, likened the change to taking the metallic badge from a Ferrari and attaching it to a golf cart:
“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.
“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”
By PolitiFact’s reasoning, I haven’t actually replaced the car—and if you disagree, you’re a pants-on-fire liar.
It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and say there’s no role for the factcheckers to play on questions like this. As Sargent argued at the time, “this disagreement ultimately comes down to differing interpretations of known facts—and not to a difference over the facts themselves.” At New York, Jonathan Chait ran through the proposed changes and then asked, “Is that ‘ending Medicare?’ Well, it’s a matter of opinion.”
That’s the wrong word, though, just as “opinion” is the wrong word for a lot of the deeply reported work that appears on the Op-Ed page. To say the Who are better than the Stones is an opinion. To say the Ryan budget wouldn’t “end” Medicare—and that it’s dishonest to claim it would—is a factual argument. (PolitiFact founder Bill Adair says the site practices “reported conclusion” journalism.)