The fact-checking movement has been gaining momentum and gaining fans. Journalistic fact checkers serve as referees by calling foul — and fair — on various assertions by politicians, public figures and pundits with heavily documented analyses. But a slow-burn backlash flared into the open this past week.
Much of it centered on Bill Adair, the editor-in-chief of the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact project from the St. Petersburg Times.
"We have disrupted the protocol in a lot of ways. We have come in and said we're not just going to pass along what the politicians are saying anymore," he says. "We're going to fact-check them, and we're going to go even further and we're going to rate them."
PolitiFact does so with ratings on a "Truth-O-Meter" ranging from "True" to "Pants on Fire."
"That has shaken the establishment," Adair says. "I think people are not accustomed to the press doing this, and I think that's a reflection that the press has ... fallen down on the job. This is what we should have been doing all along."
PolitiFact has partnered with many other news organizations in rendering its opinions, including NPR. On Tuesday, Adair announced the group's "Lie of the Year": a claim by some Democrats and liberals about a House Republican plan to change Medicare.
One version of the claim came from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: "Instead of improving Medicare, they would end Medicare as we know it."
Liberals reacted in anger against PolitiFact, including writers from Talking Points Memo and Slate, as well as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote a blog post titled "Politifact, R.I.P." MSNBC's Rachel Maddow also criticized the announcement Tuesday night.
"The self-proclaimed but quickly-becoming-irrelevant website PolitiFact declared the idea that Republicans voted to end Medicare their 'Lie of the Year' for 2011," she said.
She argued PolitiFact had its own facts wrong.
"But make no mistake — what the Republicans have proposed is actually ending Medicare," Maddow said.
The plan, pushed by the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, would shift Medicare from a health care entitlement program for all seniors to a health care subsidy with a sliding scale to support lower-income retirees. Everyone now under 55 would receive vouchers once he or she reached retirement age to subsidize the purchase of private medical insurance. The value of those vouchers would diminish over time, thus saving the government money on expanding health care costs.
"So whether that ends Medicare or essentially ends Medicare or ends Medicare as we know it seems a matter of judgment and interpretation and semantics," says Alec MacGillis, senior editor at the liberal New Republic.
MacGillis says the fact checkers can serve a purpose, but in this case he argues Adair and PolitiFact have damaged their cause.
"To declare it the 'Lie of the Year' seemed to be going a bit far," he says.
It should be noted that PolitiFact was not alone among its peers in its assessment of Democrats' claims about the Medicare plan. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler and Factcheck.org also pointed to it as one of the most misleading claims of the year.
But among PolitiFact's skeptics, count Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for the conservative National Review.
"A fairly large proportion of the time, they're not actually calling out factual inaccuracies — they are suggesting that their interpretation of facts is superior to the one that a politician is offering," he says.
Ponnuru says he thinks the Democrats' claims about the change in Medicare are legitimate and says the end result of fact-checking efforts like PolitiFact is to shut down intense political discourse.
"I mean, it's just part of democratic politics that has to be endured," he says.
This week, a cover story in the conservative Weekly Standard argues the fact-checking movement is just one more way journalists apply a veneer of objectivity to their liberal outlook. PolitiFact's past two "Lies of the Year" have singled out conservatives and Republicans. Liberal critics argue this year's result is an attempt to balance the scales.
"It's a very difficult question to say whether that's the end of Medicare or whether that is a significant transformation or whether that's a tinkering with it or whatever," says John McQuaid, a columnist for Forbes.com and past Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "It's really a question that has to be answered by the political process itself."
Adair says the American electorate needs fact checkers to give voters enough information to make up their own minds.
"We're going to make the best calls we can in a pretty gutsy form of journalism," he says. "When we do, I think it's natural that the people on one side or other of this very partisan world we live in are going to be unhappy."
Such wide-ranging criticism, he says, is the cost of the responsibility they have taken on.
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