America’s “elite three” fact checkers all bring an inconsistent approach to fact checks that address budget cuts. Specifically, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker each defended the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act against the charge it cut Medicare. But each made sure that the Republicans’ 2017 budget proposals for Medicaid were understood as clear budget cuts.
The cases had some clear similarities. The Congressional Budget Office said the ACA cut Medicare spending from the current law baseline by about $500 billion over 10 years. The CBO estimated various Republican proposals would cut Medicaid spending from the current law baseline by $772 billion to $839 billion over 10 years.
The Democrat and Republican health care plans cut spending from current law baselines by hundreds of billions of dollars.
Fact checkers gave the Medicare cuts much different treatment than the Medicaid cuts.
On July 4, 2017, I published an evaluation of PolitiFact’s treatment of the ACA’s Medicare budget at the PolitiFact Bias blog, which I co-edit. PolitiFact tended to rate Republican claims that the ACA cut Medicare “Mostly False,” repeatedly arguing that the ACA didn’t really cut Medicare. Instead, went the argument, it reduced the rate of growth for Medicare spending.
On July 19, 2017 I used Twitter to explore and publicize the way the Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, had handled the same question. I embarked on that project after Kessler tweeted out his story on the way politicians mislead people on budget cuts made relative to a baseline. Kessler followed the same pattern PolitiFact had used. Kessler found the ACA simply slowed the growth of Medicare while Republican health care proposals cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid.
Finding the results for Kessler interesting, I surveyed fact checks from Annenberg Fact Check (FactCheck.org) to look for evidence of the same approach.
FactCheck.org used the same approach as the other two of the “elite three” fact checkers.
An inconsistency of approach counts as a huge blow against the credibility of a fact checker. When that inconsistency serves to benefit one political party over another, even more damage to credibility will result, as it counts as a strong evidence of fact checker partiality.
This strong evidence gets magnified still more by the fact checkers’ habit of ignoring substantive criticism. We have published these criticisms where each of the “elite three” fact checkers will likely notice it.
PolitiFact has not responded.
The Washington Post Fact Checker has not responded.
FactCheck.org has not responded.
Do the “elite three” want trust?
I offered a prescription (bold emphasis added):
(T)he prescription for building and keeping fact checker trust is minimize mistakes and maximize transparency. But I’m talking about both of those items in terms beyond what fact checkers ordinarily think of as adequate.
Provide all source information, including the text of interviews (questions and answers).
Realize that interviewing a handful of experts is not a reasonable way to establish a professional consensus.
Answer criticism. Make stupid criticism look stupid, if that’s a legitimate option (trying to make good criticism look stupid will backfire). Allow good criticism to result in changes to fact checks and/or the approach to fact-checking.
Making a systematic mistake that harms one political party more than another damages trust. Failing to address the mistake leads toward greater destruction of trust.
The “elite three” fact checkers need to either prove that this criticism was invalid or else clean up their act. Their future as trusted sources partly depends on it.
Cases similar to this one serve as the most likely explanation for the public’s low trust in the media. Ignoring the problem will not make it disappear.
We will update this post if we detect responses from any of the “elite three” fact checkers.