This week the Pulitzer Prize winning political fact check website, Politifact, chose for its 2011 Lie of the Year the Democrat claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare as part of Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which instead privatizes significant portions of the program. While the claim was false, there is debate over whether or not it was an appropriate choice. Was the often repeated falsehood influential or widespread enough to meet the criteria for the biggest lie of 2011?
Politifact defines the Lie of the Year, “as the most significant falsehood, the one that had the most impact on the political discourse.”. This year the choices came down to, primarily, 2 claims; “The Stimulus Bill create zero jobs” and the “Republicans voted to end Medicare.”, along with their various incarnations.
The editors decided against the Stimulus claim because, “we concluded it was more a falsehood from last year, when there was more debate about the stimulus, than this year. Indeed, our first fact-check of that claim was in February 2010 — nearly two years ago.”
While this is true, Politifact first rated the false claim about the Stimulus back in February of 2010. It was based on the February 4th statement made by Senator Scott Brown who said in a press conference,“The last stimulus bill didn’t create one new job, and in some states the money that was actually released hasn’t even been used yet,” This was followed by 2 more similar statements made throughout the year, one by, then Florida gubernatorial candidate, Rick Scott and the other, a related claim by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which stated, “[The Stimulus]…cost 77,000 jobs in Wisconsin”. Three rated statements in total.
Politifact’s editors reasoned this falsehood was a 2010 issue which essentially had little bearing on 2011, effectively eliminating it from contention. However, the fact check organization found the inaccurate stimulus claims occurred frequently enough in 2011 that it subjected 6 policymaker and organization statements to its judgment, twice the number from the year before. Given the consistent and increased use of this claim throughout 2011, it is difficult to accept the editors’ reasoning as wholly credible in this case.
In their decision to choose the “vote to end Medicare” falsehood, the editor’s illustrated the frequent use of the claim by Democrats as the party, “… launched [its strategy] just four days after the House vote in April and then repeated it many times all year. It was the latest chapter in a long-running “Mediscare” strategy to frighten senior citizens that their benefits are in jeopardy if they support Republicans.” This is absolutely true given the number of rated statements which appeared on the website, nine in total. On the same topic, however, Politifact also collected and ranked as false the same number of statements throughout 2011 from various sources that claimed The Affordable Care Act will cut Medicare funding by as much as $500 billion. This does not include the 7 additional statements the organization ranked as false in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, elections which brought out record numbers of Seniors who voted in favor of Republican candidates by a 21 point margin. The claims of Medicare cuts through the health care reform most certainly influenced the midterms. As compared to the false claims about the Ryan plan which arguably impacted a New York special election this year. Which falsehood had a broader impact? Which will have more influence in 2012?
Among Politifact readers, the Stimulus Bill claim was the clear choice and given its pervasiveness and longevity it was arguably the more valid choice. Compared to the Republicans against Medicare claim, the widespread, long-used and ongoing “Stimulus created zero jobs” strategy has convinced a vast majority of Republican voters and a large portion of independents believe the Stimulus was wholly ineffective. As a result this, now, ardently held to belief has engrained itself into the psyche of so many it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on voters’ decisions, especially the ever growing independent voter electorate. While the anti-Ryan plan rhetoric may have potential to influence voters nationally, the Stimulus misinformation has already done so and its impact is readily apparent.
One may wonder what prompted Politifact to make the choice they did given the alternatives. While both the “failed stimulus” and “$500 billion in Medicare cuts” were born in 2010, their increased use throughout 2011 places them solidly on the platform of political influence this year. Considered from this perspective it is hard to dismiss them as, simply, last year’s issues.
Were there other factors at play?
Since the fact checking website gained prominence they have contended with “liberally-biased” criticisms from many a conservative pundit and commentator despite the website’s balanced nature. The organization does an effective job evaluating statements and claims from all sides. However, given the previous two years of saddling Republicans with the Lies of the Year [2009's Death Panels and 2010's A government takeover of health care], this may prompt the curious-minded to speculate, did the editors decide to hand Democrats the award this year in an attempt to curb the criticism? If so, were the motivations rooted in noble intentions? In choosing a Democratic claim this year was the hope, privately at least, based on an opening of the minds contrivance, so to speak? With this in mind, was the intent to make reliable fact checking more palatable to the broader electorate, something of which the voting public is in dire need. If this was indeed the case, will the gamble work? More than likely not. After the euphoria of the Right passes and Politifact once again rates a Republican statement as Pants on Fire false, the criticisms of liberal-bias will undoubtedly return.
Was the Lie of the Year award choice this year political? Or did Politifact do what they are known for….following the evidence wherever it may lead? Debating this will only result in both sides wedged into obstinate gridlock in the same manner as the 112th Congress.
In the end, perhaps this is something, simply, better left to the readers to decide.