PolitiFact’s blinkered self-assessment

Fact checker “PolitiFact” spins its fact check failures on health care reform

PolitiFact "Truth-O-Meter logo

The media have rightly joined the public in criticizing President Obama’s veracity in claiming Americans could keep their health care plans if they liked them.  And many have rightly criticized PolitiFact for turning a more-or-less blind eye on the president’s preposterous sales job.  But PolitiFact isn’t taking this lying down.  PolitiFact is actively promoting the idea that it did a fine job fact checking the issue, capped with a summary article written by new “PolitiPundit” editor Aaron Sharockman.  PolitiFact, like President Obama, is doubling down.

Sharockman introduces his topic and then looks at the “Spin from the left”:

Make no mistake, the blame for the mess happening now starts with Obama.

His promise that you could keep your plan if you like it was always going to be correct for some people — and wrong for others. PolitiFact pointed that out in June 2012, after the Supreme Court upheld the law. Back then, we rated his statement Half True.


PolitiFact pointed it out?  What did PolitiFact point out, exactly?  Let’s review its June 2012 rating of the president’s claim:

Obama has a reasonable point: His health care law does take pains to allow Americans to keep their health plan if they want to remain on it. But Obama suggests that keeping the insurance you like is guaranteed.

In reality, Americans are not simply able to keep their insurance through thick and thin. Even before the law has taken effect, the rate of forced plan-switching among policyholders every year is substantial, and the CBO figures suggest that the law could increase that rate, at least modestly, even if Americans on balance benefit from the law’s provisions. We rate Obama’s claim Half True.


Let’s remove the varnish.

The health care law does not “take pains” to help Americans keep their health plans. The law provided an avenue toward grandfathered status for health plans, but with a cutoff date of March 23, 2010.  When Obama spoke, no plan non-compliant with the ACA’s requirements and issued after that date was eligible for grandfathered status.  PolitiFact didn’t report it, instead engaging in the fantasy that the law goes out of its way to make it easy for people to keep the insurance they like.

But at least the CBO reported the law would only have modest effects on plan-switching even if Americans benefit from the law, right?  No, that’s just more PolitiFact varnish.

The CBO report PolitiFact cites on its source list doesn’t mention plan-switching.  It focuses on the ACA’s effect on the number of insured persons and changes in whether people get insurance through their employer.  The report predicts millions will lose their employer-based insurance by 2019 under the ACA.  Apparently it matters not whether the employees like the insurance or not, and to PolitiFact this is a modest effect.  Don’t expect any focus on the effect of the tax on “Cadillac” health insurance plans, either.

PolitiFact isn’t exactly apologizing for these fact-checking blunders, is it?

Sharockman continues:

His comment oversimplified the changes that the health care law imposed on insurers and overemphasized the two biggest ways people receive health insurance, through their work or through government.


Oversimplified?  The president simply omitted the changes and the effects of those changes.  PolitiFact largely followed suit and continues to add a gloss to the facts even after the president’s deception is exposed.

Overemphasized?  The changes to the law wrought by the ACA have increased the pace of employers cutting employees’ health insurance benefits .  PolitiFact fails to even consider that effect in its fact check.  Nor did PolitiFact uncover the administration’s estimates that the bulk of employer plans were projected to lose grandfathered status by the start of 2014.

That fact still does not seem to have dawned on Sharockman, who writes that the administration knew “some people” would have their plans changed or cancelled.  Yet at the same time Sharockman parrots the administration line that the law does away with the “old, grandfathered policies” by design.

If we’re not torqued enough by Sharockman’s twisting of the spin from the left, we can look forward to his turn on the spin from the right:

The president’s opponents have done their fair share to mangle an already-complicated issue.

The universe of people facing significant changes or insurance cancellations remains small, with talk ranging between 6 and 10 percent. Stated in the reverse, most people will be able to keep their health insurance plan, if they like it.


Who defines significant changes?  And who determined  that “most people will be able to keep their health insurance plan if they like it?  In the latter case, at least, it’s PolitiFact.

It’s time to scrape off a bit more varnish.

Sharockman’s link leads to a PolitiFact story rating David Axelrod‘s claim that most Americans would keep their health insurance.  The article does a dandy job of obscuring the difference between people losing a health plan they were happy with and losing health insurance.  It also blurs the distinction between changes to a plan leading into 2014 and changes occurring since the health care law went into effect.  Again, PolitiFact fails to mention the key cutoff date of March 23, 2010, which applies to grandfathering eligibility for group and non-group policies.

PolitiFact tips off its agenda when it describes the question it posed to the experts it contacted for the story (bold emphasis added):

We asked a variety of experts to comment on the literal accuracy of Axelrod’s statement. For the most part, regardless of their opinion of the new health care law, they gave Axelrod the benefit of the doubt.


Don’t consider context.  Don’t consider the underlying argument.  Don’t consider what Axelrod communicates to the audience.  Give us a comment about the literal accuracy.  We can use that.

Some experts went beyond judging the literal accuracy of Axelrod’s statement, pointing out that Axelrod was diverting attention from the real issue, or that the statement has no hard backing evidence.  Facts be damned.  PolitiFact rated Axelrod “Mostly True.”

Swallow this pack of lies

In his conclusion Sharockman directs readers to pay attention to three numbered points:

Here are three, key points to help you understand what’s happening:

1. “If you like your plan, you can keep it” is true for the majority of Americans who have insurance but not for everyone, particularly people in the individual market.

2. The health care plan was largely designed so that some health care plans would go away. If not this year, then at some point down the road. That’s what ultimately makes Obama’s promise such a misstep.

3. Opponents of the law are so obsessed that they have consistently overstated attacks against the health care law, and they are guilty of oversimplifying Obama’s original “if you like it” promise.


To which we reply:

1)  PolitiFact produces no hard evidence in support of its claim the president’s statement “If you like your plan you can keep it” is true for most Americans.  PolitiFact’s argument relies on equivocation, an implicit appeal to ignorance, and emphasizing some expert sources over others without justification.

2)  The health care law was designed so that all plans not compliant with the ACA would go away in relatively short order.  PolitiFact’s claim that the law “took pains” to allow people to keep their existing health insurance plans is risible in that context.

3)  Leaving aside the issue of whether it is appropriate for a fact checker to characterize one side of a political debate as “obsessed,” Sharockman provides no substantial evidence of “consistently overstated attacks” on the healthcare law.  Sharockman offers just two examples, both invalid.  We’ll write later about PolitiFact’s deeply flawed fact check of radio personality Glenn Beck, and the Fox News segment Sharockman cites explains the numbers essentially the same way PolitiFact explains them in the fact check of Beck.

PolitiFact’s fact checking of President Obama’s promise was putrid.  PolitiFact’s subsequent insistence that it did a fine job with its fact checks simply magnifies the stench.

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