PolitiFact Bases Entire Fact Check on Author's Intuition

PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times, has really outdone itself with this check of a recent Crossroads GPS ad. Their 1,100 word fact check focuses in on just 14 words and still manages to completely confuse the issue. It winds up judging a true statement "False" based on nothing but the author's intuition of the advertiser's bad intentions.

This certainly looks like an egregious example of political bias, but rather than assume the worst about the author, I emailed her and her editor to see if they would agree to explain themselves. After a back and forth with PolitiFact's senior editor, which I'll share below, my efforts led to the addition of an update which does absolutely nothing to address the problem. So, is this rampant bias or just incompetence? I'll let you be the judge.

Here's the Crossroads GPS ad which is the focus of PolitiFact's attention:

As you can see, it's a list of promises the President made which the narrator claims were broken. In fact, the title of the ad is "Obama's Promise." The promise which is the focus of the entire fact check comes at the 28-second mark. Obama says, "If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan." The narrator then says, "Broken" and adds this key line of description:

Millions could lose their health care coverage and be forced into a government pool.

After introducing the ad, writer Angie Drobnic Holan starts out with a promising look at the history of Obama's promise. She notes that the Affordable Care Act "will change the decisions employers make about health coverage, at least to some extent." She's already confirmed the core of the statement she's reviewing but, as you'll see later, she doesn't know it.

The next section begins with a heading in bold "Millions lose coverage?" Holan notes that the source for the ad's claim is a report in The Hill which reads in part:

As many as 20 million Americans could lose their employer-provided coverage because of President Obama's healthcare reform law, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in a new report Thursday.

The Hill story goes on to say that, at a minimum, three million people will likely lose the insurance they have by 2019. And Holan clearly understands this. She writes, "The law will cause some shifting around of how people get their insurance, though. That’s what the CBO report documents."

There's one more part of the ad that gets fact checked. It's the last bit wherein the narrator says people will be "forced into a government pool." No one can argue with the "forced" part of this, since Obamacare is based on a mandate to purchase insurance. But what is a "government pool" exactly? PolitiFact knows exactly what it is:

The exchanges are new virtual marketplaces where people who buy insurance on their own will be able to comparison shop for plans. And technically speaking, this is a pool, because people who buy on the exchange will be able to buy plans regardless of any pre-existing health conditions.

At this point, PolitiFact has proven the ad's claim is completely "True." Let's just review the statement being checked, word for word:

  • “Millions…” three million minimum according to the CBO
  • “could lose their health care coverage…” – coverage the President repeatedly promised they could keep
  • “and be forced…”  - ACA has a mandate, so forced is accurate
  • “into a government pool” – By Politifact’s own admission, the exchanges are a pool

But you've probably guessed by now that PolitiFact rated this absolutely true statement as "False." How is this even possible? Well, it's pretty instructive actually, so let's take a look.

How PolitiFact Renders a True Statement "False"

Here's how they did it. Watch this amazing bit of sleight-of-hand:

CBO and other independent groups project that the number of uninsured will actually decrease because of the health care law. Estimates vary, but the CBO has projected that between 29 million to 31 million uninsured Americans will gain access to coverage...

[T]he Crossroads ad doesn’t mention any of those specifics. Its point seems to be simply that a lot of people will lose coverage. This is deeply misleading, because the law will increase the number of people who have coverage.

The ad is clearly about the President's promise that you could keep your insurance, not some insurance. Instead of staying on that point, PolitiFact's introduces a novel new interpretation of the ad's meaning. Suddenly, it's not about the President's promise at all, rather " Its point seems to be simply that a lot of people will lose coverage." Really? Where does it say that? In fact, that's not the point of that ad and isn't even a possible interpretation given the context. But by intentionally misreading what the ad says, PolitiFact changes the subject to something which it can then label false.

I wrote to Holan and PolitiFact editor Bill Adair to ask them to explain this bit of misdirection. I pointed out in detail, similar to what I've written above, that Holan seemed to get confused about what the ad was claiming. I got a response from Adair as follows:

We rated the claim False because we found the ad was inaccurately describing the health care law. As you can see in our fact-check, we were largely focused on the part that "millions could lose their health care coverage and be forced into a government pool." We found "government pool" was a very misleading way to describe the health care exchanges, where people will be able to choose from various plans offered by private insurers. On balance, we felt that was such a distortion that it made the claim False.

Still, we recognize that readers won't always agree with our conclusions and I'm glad you're taking time to analyze our work.


Bill Adair
Editor, PolitiFact

You may have noticed, as I did, that Adair didn't argue with my analysis of the claim that millions of people would lose their coverage. Instead, he retreated to the last defensible position, the part about government pools. As I've already noted, PolitiFact admits in the course of its fact-check that the exchanges are "technically" a government pool. So how is this claim misleading? Once again, it's time to move the goal posts:

Under the terms of the plan, some of the people will be buying insurance with a government subsidy, but some will be buying with their own money. But they’ll be buying plans from private insurance companies, to be treated by non-government doctors and hospitals.

Given the contours of the health care debate over the past two years, the ad seems like it’s trying to confuse people into thinking they’ll be signed up for a government-run health plan like Medicare. That’s actually not the case.

And there you have it. What the ad says is completely true and technically accurate, but PolitiFact rated it "False" because it "seems like it's trying to confuse people." In other words, the author of this piece, about whom we know nothing, has decided that this true statement could be misleading to someone.

There may be a place for fact checkers to point out when claims are true and still misleading. But that's very different from labeling a completely true statement "False." If PolitiFact wants to rely on the intuition of its authors about the intent of the advertisers, it ought to make clear that is a separate question from the truth or falsehood of the statements themselves. It also needs to offer a lot more in the way of justification of those intuitions. Saying something "seems like" isn't enough to base an entire conclusion on.

Rather than acknowledge the serious shortcomings of this piece, Adair decided to add an update. You can read it yourself here. As you'll see, it clarifies nothing that wasn't already clear from the text. The rest of the fact check piece is unchanged.


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