Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.I've written quite a bit about PolitiFact's problem with selection bias. This fact check serves as an excellent example of a related and perhaps even more pernicious form of bias, that arising from the selection of a story's focus. Two stories dealing with the same topic, such as the Medicare claim in the Obama campaign's "Julia" ad, can turn out very differently. And the ideology of the writer or editor can easily alter the story focus.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
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The fact checkers:
Becky Bowers: writer, researcher
Angie Drobnic Holan: editor
As I pointed out in an earlier review of a "Julia" ad fact check, the context of the Obama campaign's claims about Mitt Romney has to do with hypothetical comparisons between her life under Obama's policies and Romney's policies. Here's a closeup of the relevant part of the ad:
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PolitiFact ignores Obama's point of comparison, narrowing the focus specifically to the claim regarding Romney's plan for Medicare:
We wondered, under Romney’s policies, is it true that, "Medicare could end as we know it, leaving Julia with nothing but a voucher to buy insurance, which means $6,350 extra per year for a similar plan"?PolitiFact, at least for purposes of this fact check, does not wonder whether it is fair and proper for the Obama campaign to compare the cherry-picked rosy picture of Medicare under Obama with the cherry-picked bleak prospects for Medicare under Romney's supposed plan. Julia's prospects under Romney could have read "Julia enrolls in Medicare, helping her to afford preventive care and the prescription drugs she needs."
Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, PolitiFact did find a few things wrong with the ad.
1) It bases its statement of Romney's position on the older Paul Ryan budget proposal. Romney has said he agrees in principle with the bipartisan Wyden/Ryan plan which is similar in some ways to Ryan's old plan and different in others. Plus Romney has a plan of his own about which we know few specifics.
2) Because of the outdated analysis, the ad has no foundation for its claim about the $6,350 voucher figure it cites.
3) Various features in each of the plans undercut the claim that "Julia" would end up with "nothing but a voucher to buy insurance."
But the news for the Obama campaign wasn't all bad.
PolitiFact originally rated the claim "False," but after "readers" pointed out an error in the story, PolitiFact reconsidered and upgraded the rating to "Mostly False." Woohoo.
What was the error?
(R)eaders pointed out we had incorrectly said that the Wyden-Ryan and Romney plans for Medicare offered traditional fee-for-service Medicare alongside a premium-support or "voucher" system for purchasing private insurance. Instead, both plans offer traditional Medicare inside of a new premium-support system, as another plan that competes with private insurance.One might well wonder why that fact makes a difference. Unfortunately, PolitiFact made the original story unavailable. That makes finding all the specific changes difficult. But the summary paragraph likely includes most or all of the justification for the higher rating.
The Obama campaign ties Romney to an outdated plan with less generous spending growth and no traditional Medicare option. Romney does support a voucher-like system, but the graphic ignores critical facts that would give a different impression about his plan. We rate the claim Mostly False.
By narrowing the focus to a fine point PolitiFact locates a portion with sufficient truth to avoid a "False" rating. The problem with the fact check isn't the rating on this narrow point. The problem comes from PolitiFact failing to provide any mention of the way the particle of truth powers a dynamo of deception. The ad's argument is a stinker. PolitiFact's ruling gives it more cover than it deserves.
Becky Bowers: D
Angie Drobnic Holan: D
I've seen so many fact checks much worse than this one from PolitiFact that perhaps I'm being overly generous. Bottom line: A serious fact check takes into account the underlying argument and the context. The overall argument of the Medicare portion of the "Julia" ad was deceptive and designed to scare voters with its manipulated comparison. PolitiFact did not allow its focus to fall on the main issue.