With 'Lie Of The Year' Controversy, Fact Checking Comes Under Scrutiny : It's All Politics Liberals reacted with anger after PolitiFact charged Democrats with the "Lie of the Year." Have the fact checkers damaged their cause?
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With 'Lie Of The Year' Controversy, Fact Checking Comes Under Scrutiny

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With 'Lie Of The Year' Controversy, Fact Checking Comes Under Scrutiny


Inside journalism, the industry of political fact-checking is gaining fans. Fact-checkers serve as referees by calling foul or fair on assertions by politicians and pundits.

But as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik explains, there's been a slow-burning backlash that flared up in the past week.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Bill Adair is under attack. He's the editor-in-chief of the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact Project, from the St. Petersburg Times

BILL ADAIR: 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; we're going to fact-check them. And we're going to go even further, and we're going to rate them.

FOLKENFLIK: PolitiFact does so with ratings on a Truth-O-Meter, ranging from True to Pants on Fire.

ADAIR: That has shaken the establishment. I think people are not accustomed to the press doing this, and I think that's an reflection that the press has been - has fallen down on the job. This is what we should have been doing all along.

FOLKENFLIK: 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. Here's one version of the claim; in this case, from the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Instead of improving Medicare, they would end Medicare as we know it.

FOLKENFLIK: Liberals reacted in anger against PolitiFact. Here was MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Tuesday night.

RACHEL MADDOW: 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.

FOLKENFLIK: She argued PolitiFact had its own facts wrong.

MADDOW: But make no mistake: What the Republicans have proposed is actually ending Medicare.

FOLKENFLIK: The plan, pushed by the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, would shift Medicare from an 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 they 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.

ALEC MACGILLIS: 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the liberal New Republic. He says the fact-checkers can serve a purpose. But in this case, he argues Adair and PolitiFact have damaged their cause.

MACGILLIS: To declare it the Lie of the Year seemed to be going a bit far.

FOLKENFLIK: It should be noted that PolitiFact was not alone among its peers in its assessment of Democratic 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. He's a senior editor for the conservative National Review.

RAMESH PONNURU: A fairly large proportion of the time, they're not actually calling out factual inaccuracies. They are suggesting that their interpretation of the facts is superior to the one that a politician is offering.

FOLKENFLIK: Ponnuru says he thinks the Democrats' claims about the change in Medicare are legitimate. And he says the end result of fact-checking efforts like PolitiFact is to shut down intense political discourse.

PONNURU: I mean, it's just part of democratic politics that has to be endured.

FOLKENFLIK: 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.

John McQuaid is a columnist for Forbes.com, and is a past Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

JOHN MCQUAID: 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. It's really a question that has to be answered by the political process itself.

FOLKENFLIK: Bill Adair says the American electorate needs fact-checkers to give them enough information to make up their own minds.

ADAIR: We're going to make the best calls we can, in a pretty gutsy form of journalism. And when we do, I think it's natural that the people on one side or the other of this very partisan world we live in are going to be unhappy

FOLKENFLIK: Such wide-ranging criticism, he says, is the cost of the responsibility they have taken on.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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