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
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
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
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
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.
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.