The Year In Lies

NPR's Robert Siegel talks with the Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.com, about the year's biggest lies according to PolitiFact editors and readers. Adair reveals the No. 1 whopper.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Of all the end of the year honors and best of the year lists, we think we have found the most dishonorable. It's from the fact-checking Web site of the St. Petersburg Times, PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact, which sweeps the Augean Stables of American political discourse, rating politicians' statements for truth, falsehood or some alloy of the two, has declared its first annual lie of the year. And joining us to announce the winner is Bill Adair, the editor of PolitiFact. Welcome to the program.

M: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And you have to explain to us why you folks at PolitiFact.com decided to name a lie of the year.

M: Well, we felt it was a great year for lying. There were, really, an extraordinary number of falsehoods in the political discourse that we found in our fact-checking. We checked about 428 claims in the year, and we found that 26 percent were false and an additional 10 percent earned our lowest rating: Pants on Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: So, it was a very good year for lying and we felt it was important to sort of name one as the lie of the year.

SIEGEL: So, in a year that more generally may be remembered as the year of my kid is in that balloon, or we were invited to the state dinner, you've gone through politicians' statements. And you heard it first, the First Annual PolitiFact.com lie of the year is...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

M: Death panels: The claim by Sarah Palin that the health care bill includes death panels that would make some determination of whether people could live or die. We decided that was the lie of the year because not only was it so inaccurate, but it spread so widely and it became a really important talking point in the debate about the health care bill.

It really helped, I think, define the health care bill for a lot of people, even though it was wrong. And it, in many ways, the Democrats spent much of the late summer and early fall fighting the death panel claim and other falsehoods rather than defining the bill themselves.

SIEGEL: And how well have you done at tracing the origins of this particular whopper, that there are death panels written up in the health care bill?

M: Well, it was actually Palin herself - as far as we can tell - who was the first to use the phrase death panels. But the concept that the Democratic plan might somehow promote euthanasia actually goes back to the early part of the year to an editorial in The Washington Times that suggested that.

And it picked up a lot of steam in the summer when Betsy McCoy, who is a former New York State official who speaks up a lot on health care issues, she raised this euthanasia question and suggested that the seniors would be encouraged to die sooner. And we rated that also Pants on Fire. I should note that the death panel claims from Governor Palin was also rated Pants on Fire on our truth meter. And so it definitely sort of evolved. But it was Palin who gave it the phrase death panels and that really launched it into the stratosphere.

SIEGEL: And in the event that death panels should be unable to perform their duties in the course of the year, who would be first runner-up and who might take over as lie of the year?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: First runner-up would be Glen Beck. We rate a lot of pundits on PolitiFact.com. And we spent a lot of time this year checking some of the talk show hosts from MSNBC and Fox and CNN. And Glenn Beck was the runner-up for a claim about John Holdren, who was the White House science adviser. And Beck had claimed that Holdren in the past had proposed forced abortion and putting sterilants in the water and that one also earned a Pants on Fire.

SIEGEL: Well, Bill Adair, thank you very much for breaking the lie of the year: death panels, right here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

M: It's a big moment, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Okay, we can read all about it at PolitiFact.com. Bill Adair is the editor. He's also Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times.

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