Sunday, May 15, 2011

Unrepentant: PolitiFact doubles down on 2010 "Lie of the Year"

When PolitiFact announced its 2010 "Lie of the Year" was the Republican claim that the Democratic health care reform bill represented a "government takeover" of American health care, it came under a considerable amount of criticism.  PolitiFact never answered the criticism, and on Friday the 13th, May 14, 2011 PolitiFact rated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "Pants on Fire" for a similar claim.

It's worth noting that Romney phrased his version as an opinion:
"When I ask people what they dislike most about the president’s plan, what I typically hear is they say, ‘Obamacare represents a government takeover of health care, and I don’t like it.’ And I think they’re right."
But PolitiFact apparently regards itself as immune from expressing its own opinion when it claims that the opinions of others represent false claims.  PolitiFact continues to publish its stories without an "opinion" or "news analysis" label.

The content of the claim is more important, of course.

PolitiFact continues to take the position that a government takeover cannot take place if private insurers remain in business, heedless of the fact that sufficient regulation has the same effect on business behavior as government ownership.

Note the thin response to Romney's explanation of "government takeover":
When we asked Romney’s camp to explain their use of the term "government takeover," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said, "It seems pretty obvious that under Obamacare, the federal government takes on a vastly expanded role in health care. Whether you call it a ‘takeover’ or a ‘power grab,’ the effect is the same -- it shifts power and responsibility from the states to Washington and suffocates the nation under a massive, byzantine bureaucracy fueled by a half trillion dollars in higher taxes."

But we find flimsy evidence for such a strong claim. The government's expanded role in health falls far short of being a government takeover. As we said in our Lie of the Year announcement, analogies about strict government regulation provide some helpful illustrations. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes detailed rules on airlines. State laws require drivers to have car insurance. Regulators tell electric utilities what they can charge. Yet that heavy regulation is not described as a government takeover.
First, PolitiFact labels Romney's statement a "strong claim."  But it's actually a relatively modest claim (witness his explanation) couched in strong terms.  Thus PolitiFact finds itself ignoring Romney's explanation in favor of straw men and an anemic argument by analogy.  It is irrelevant whether anyone actually describes federal regulation (particularly new government regulation) of aviation as a "government takeover."  It is only relevant whether the term reasonably describes the government increasing its effective control of an enterprise and whether the phrase misleads the audience.

PolitiFact's credibility will continue to ebb so long as it responds to a wave of good criticism by failing to respond appropriately with either a rebuttal to the criticism or a change in behavior.

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