On December 12, the self-appointed guardians of truth and justice at PolitiFact named President Obama’s infamous promise—that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—its 2013 “Lie of the Year.” An understandable choice. But in its article detailing why the President’s promise was a lie, PolitiFact neglected to mention an essential detail. In 2008, at a critical point in the presidential campaign, PolitiFact rated the “keep your plan” promise as “True.” The whole episode, and PolitiFact’s misleading behavior throughout, tells us a lot about the troubled state of “fact-checking” journalism.
2008 PolitiFact: ‘We rate his statement True’
On October 9, 2008, Angie Drobnic Holan of PolitiFact published an article using the site’s “Truth-O-Meter” to evaluate this claim: “Under Barack Obama’s health care proposal, ‘if you’ve got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it.’” The article assures us in its headline that “Obama’s plan expands [the] existing system,” and continues that “Obama is accurately describing his health care plan here…It remains to be seen whether Obama’s plan will actually be able to achieve the cost savings it promises for the health care system. But people who want to keep their current insurance should be able to do that under Obama’s plan. His description of his plan is accurate, and we rate his statement True.”
The 2008 Obama plan, among other things, sought to transform the individual insurance market; it proposed to bar insurers from charging different premiums to the healthy and the sick, and to require them to offer plans to all comers, regardless of prior health status. According to PolitiFact, however, there was no need to worry that these provisions would be disruptive to existing health plans.
As per PolitiFact’s usual M.O., Holan didn’t seek out any skeptical health-policy experts to suss out the veracity of Senator Obama’s signature claim. Instead, its sources included Jonathan Cohn, a passionate Obamacare supporter at The New Republic, and various interviews and statements of Mr. Obama. Holan simply took the “keep your plan” promise at face value, dismissing as dishonest anyone who dared suggest that Obama’s claim would be impossible to keep. “His opponents have attacked his plan as ‘government-run’ health care,” she wrote, the scare-quotes around “government-run” being visible to all.
PolitiFact’s pronouncements about Obamacare were widely repeated by pro-Obama reporters and pundits, and had a meaningful impact on the outcome of the election. Indeed, in 2009, PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 campaign.
2009 PolitiFact: ‘There’s no guarantee’
By the summer of 2009, with the White House safely in Democratic hands, Holan and PolitiFact evolved their evaluation of Obama’s promise. “On one level, Obama is correct,” Holan insisted in a new PolitiFact article, but now that “we finally have detailed bills to examine,” Holan found that Obamacare would “introduce new ways of regulating health insurance companies that will surely change the current health care system.” Surprise!
But in fact Senator Obama was quite open during the 2008 campaign about his desire to “introduce new ways of regulating health insurance companies that would surely change the current health care system,” as I noted above. Along with barring different premiums based on prior health status, the plan would require all plans to cover a costly set of required benefits that would drive up the cost of insurance. It would fix the operating margins of health insurers, through the “medical loss ratio,” in a way that would drive up costs and change benefits.
So it wasn’t surprising to anyone that the actual Obamacare bill, introduced in Congress, included these very same concepts. Except now, Holan and PolitiFact described the “keep your plan” claim as “Half True.” Their reason? The proposed “public option” of a government-sponsored plan might give employers an incentive to drop coverage into the public system. Holan continued to downplay the other provisions in the Obamacare bill.
“Until the legislation gets closer to a final stage,” wrote Holan, “it’s difficult to say how many employers will likely opt to change coverage. But clearly some change is coming. It’s not realistic for Obama to make blanket statements that ‘you’ will not be able to ‘keep your health care plan.’ It seems like rhetoric intended to soothe people that health care reform will not be overly disruptive. But one of the points of reform is to change the way health care works right now. So we rate Obama’s statement Half True.”
Note that every single statement in that paragraph was as true of Obama’s 2008 plan as it was of the Obamacare bills of 2009. But PolitFact’s rating magically evolved from “True” to “Half True.”[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVmd53mWVUA]2012 PolitiFact: CBO projects plan-dropping, but President still ‘Half True’
In the summer of 2012, after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate, PolitiFact was back at it again, rating as “Half True” the President’s “keep your plan” promise. This time, the article was written and researched by another PolitiFact writer, Louis Jacobson, and edited by Angie Drobnic Holan, who had been promoted by PolitiFact from her previous reportorial role.
The 2012 article was precipitated by a March 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office that projected that four million Americans would lose their employer-sponsored coverage by 2016 due to Obamacare, with many having to enroll in Obamacare-sponsored insurance instead. Some of these changes would be “involuntary,” wrote Jacobson, rendering false the “guarantee” that every American could keep his plan.
But because the President, according to PolitiFact, “does take pains to allow Americans to keep their health plan if they want to remain on it,” the group maintained its “Half True” rating. The “does take pains” line is hardly objective fact-checking, but more like subjective excuse-making.
In 2012, Obamacare was a law, not merely a bill, and its dramatic restructuring of the health insurance system was now a statutory fact that was plain for anyone—whose eyes were open—to see.
Indeed, in 2010, the Obama administration itself estimated that a majority of employer-sponsored health insurance plans would soon be illegal under Obamacare. If PolitiFact had spoken with anyone at Aetna or Humana or UnitedHealth, it would have learned about what the law would do to the insurance market. But that would have required actual reporting.
2013 PolitiFact: It’s the ‘Lie of the Year’
So that brings us back to the fall of 2013. As Obamacare’s battle station became operational, and tens of millions of health plans became illegal, PolitiFact was caught with its flaming pants down. Louis Jacobson rapped Valerie Jarrett for tweeting that “nothing in Obamacare forces people out of their health plans”—a claim Jacobson rated as “False,” even though PolitiFact had rated it as “True” and “Half True” before.
On November 4, Jacobson rated as “Pants on Fire” the President’s new claim that “what we said was, you can keep [your plan] if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” Both pieces were edited by Angie Drobnic Holan, who had initially granted PolitiFact’s seal of approval to Senator Obama’s 2008 promise. Holan delivered the coup de grâce, declaring as PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” the “keep your plan” promise.
“The promise was impossible to keep,” says Holan in her December piece. Now she tells us! But none of the key facts that made that promise “impossible” in 2008 had changed by 2013. The President’s plan had always required major disruption of the health insurance market; the Obamacare bill contained the key elements of that plan; the Obamacare law did as well. The only thing that had changed was the actual first-hand accounts of millions of Americans who were losing their plans now that Obamacare was live.
PolitiFact neglects to mention its 2008 ‘True’ rating
The highlight of Holan’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” article was that it completely ignored Holan’s own “True” rating of the “keep your plan” claim back in 2008. A sidebar to the article listed as “related rulings” Holan’s 2013 articles about Jarrett and Obama, and Jacobson’s 2012 article rating the claim as “Half True.” The text of the article cites also the 2009 “Half True” report. But nowhere does the “Lie of the Year” piece even acknowledge that its author once gave Obama’s promise its 100 percent “True” seal of approval.
It’s more than a bit precious for Holan—a self-appointed Arbiter of the Truth—to declare as a “Lie” a statement that she herself once declared to be “True” without even acknowledging the fact that she had done so. She has no compunction, nor does her employer, in calling President Obama a liar, without calling attention to, let alone reflecting upon, the gaping flaws in her own reporting. If President Obama’s claim is PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year,” so should be PolitiFact’s 2008 endorsement of that claim.
That we can’t count on PolitiFact to even admit it was wrong tells you everything you need to know about the group. One wag on Twitter once described PolitiFact as “60 percent true,” because “Politi” is 60 percent of the letters in “PolitiFact.” PolitiFact’s Obamacare flip-flop—coming after two presidential elections in which the group came to Obama’s defense—tells you one, or both, of two things: (1) PolitiFact doesn’t know what it’s doing when it comes to evaluating the truthfulness of claims regarding health policy; and/or (2) PolitiFact bears a left-wing bias that sought to downplay unflattering aspects of the President’s health-care plan during election years.
PolitiFact’s pants are on fire
Indeed, the entire enterprise of PolitiFact is darkened by the dishonesty at its very core. The group routinely evaluates predictions about the future as “facts.” A fact is something that has happened in the past. A policy outcome that will happen in the future is open for debate—at least for those of us without a souped-up DeLorean. PolitiFact rarely troubles itself with evaluating actual facts, instead considering itself a kind of super-objective think tank that can omnisciently predict the future.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to assign realism to the predictions about the future that politicians make. But that’s not fact-checking. It’s prediction-checking. And that is why PolitiFact’s very name is itself a “Pants on Fire” lie; it should instead be called “PolitiPrediction.” But that wouldn’t provide as much opportunity for self-righteous preening.
And there’s already a journalistic market for prediction-checking: the robust community of think tanks and policy analysts who have actual expertise in the areas they study. PolitiFact is not a think tank; instead it’s composed of ordinary reporters, who barely understand the subjects they write about, and routinely turn to liberal and progressive policy analysts—but rarely conservatives—to buttress their forays into soothsaying.
PolitiFact is an embarrassment to the world of fact-checking, let alone to the world of prediction-checking to which it actually belongs. Their 2008 Pulitzer Prize—prominently mentioned on every PolitiFact web page—owes itself in part to the group’s lazy and inaccurate reporting on Obamacare. If PolitiFact were intellectually honest, it would acknowledge that it was undeserving of that prize, reflect on how its work has gone astray, and focus in the future on actual fact-checking instead of prediction-checking.
Here’s my prediction: they won’t. And that’s all you need to know about the epistemological legitimacy of PolitiFact.
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UPDATE 1: After I published this article, Angie Holan of PolitiFact claimed on Twitter that her 2008 “True” rating of Obama’s promise was justified, because Senator Obama’s 2008 plan was “a campaign proposal with no [individual] mandate” requiring the purchase of health insurance, and therefore represented a “very different set of facts than [her] later ruling.”
@avik The ’08 rating was for a campaign proposal with NO mandate. Very different set of facts than later ruling.
— Angie Drobnic Holan (@AngieHolan) December 27, 2013
But that’s another “Pants on Fire” assertion on her part. First of all, as I discuss in the article, there were plenty of features in Senator Obama’s 2008 plan—its requirement that insurers treat all people the same, regardless of health status, for example—that were obviously going to disrupt the health insurance market.
In addition, if Obamacare had lacked an individual mandate, as the 2008 plan did, it would have been even more disruptive to the health insurance market, as anyone familiar with the subject knows. The reason the individual mandate was incorporated into Obamacare is that without forcing healthy people to buy costly insurance in excess of their needs, the Obamacare insurance market would be at risk of collapsing in an adverse selection death spiral.
Either Holan knows this, and she is misrepresenting her past reasoning; or she does not, in which case PolitiFact should retire from the health care fact-checking business.
UPDATE 2: Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner wrote an article about the same problem in November. Higgins asked Angie Holan if she stood by her work on the “keep your plan” promise:
I asked Politifact’s editors whether they still stood by these columns. Editor Angie Holan did not respond directly, instead emailing me a round up of their more recent columns on aspects of the Obamacare debate. I asked again and she did not respond.
Apparently, Politifact thinks accountability is something that only applies to other people.
UPDATE 3: Here’s another thought about Holan’s Twitter explanation. If she believes that the 2009 Obamacare bills’ inclusion of an individual mandate made them materially different from Senator Obama’s 2008 proposal, why does that view appear nowhere in her 2009 article on the subject? Indeed, the world “mandate” is never mentioned in the 2009 article. The following sentence, however, does: The Obamacare bills “closely mirror what Obama promised during the campaign.”