Commentary Magazine


“Fact-Checking” Pushback Falls Flat

Even the self-proclaimed “fact-checkers” in the media can’t save President Obama from his dismal debate performance on Wednesday, but they gave it a try yesterday. Critics pounced on Mitt Romney’s claim that Obamacare would give an unelected board (known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board) decision-making power over what treatments patients can receive. According to the fact-checkers, this assertion was a blatant lie because, well, the Obama administration told them so.

Actually, the way the board will work isn’t clear-cut at this point, contrary to the reassuring promises of the Obama administration and “gotcha!” cries from fact-checkers. Megan McArdle knocks down the argument (read the whole thing) at the Daily Beast today:

Medicare already has a payment-setting body; they don’t need a special independent board to tell them that the rates on everything should be 2% lower.  What they need, or at least want, is a body insulated from political pressure that will start cutting the reimbursements for some services so deeply that providers will stop offering them, or at least, stop offering them so indiscriminately.

In other words, IPAB is going to cut benefits for Medicare patients, and determine which treatments they can get. We’re just calling it something that sounds a little bit less like “Fire up the mobility scooter, Harry!  We’re going down to Congressman Smith’s office to give him a piece of our mind!”

The administration is essentially arguing that IPAB will cut costs only by reducing provider incomes, not by curtailing in any way the consumption of Medicare beneficiaries.  This is possible, I suppose, but it is not supported by either economic theory, or historical evidence.

Romney’s tax plan also caught the attention of fact-checkers. President Obama claims the plan will give $5 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy (ignoring the closing of deductions and loopholes that Romney has proposed to offset the cut). PolitiFact rated Obama’s claim about the $5 trillion tax cut “half true,” though they might want to recheck that since the Obama campaign’s Stephanie Cutter has since acknowledged that Obama’s comment wasn’t accurate.

The problem with media fact-checkers is that they’re basically political reporters, but they’re expected to play the role of an expert on whatever subject(s) they’re writing about that particular hour. Because they have to churn out articles quickly, they’re highly reliant on campaign flaks, who in turn often exploit them to fight political battles. As WaPo’s Eric Wemple pointed out today, the fact-checkers had differing opinions on how valid the same debate claims were.

There was a reason the media previously stayed out of the fact-checking business, and left that job to policy experts and campaigns. While some claims can be rated “true” or “false,” many of them aren’t that clear-cut. Better to give readers several arguments and allow them to make up their own minds.