On October 19 on Fox News Sunday, with the debate over the U.S. response to the spread of Ebola in full swing, George Will quoted a University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy report that challenged the conventional wisdom. The center claimed that “there is scientific and epidemiological evidence that Ebola virus has the potential to be transmitted via infectious aerosol particles both near and at a distance from infected patients.”
This was controversial. But it wasn’t made up out of whole cloth; Will quoted a center for infectious disease report. And what it most certainly was not was a lie. According to any reasonable definition of the word, there’s no way to legitimately argue that Will was lying. The accusation doesn’t even make sense. And yet, Will’s comment is the central plank in the liberal opinion column PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.”
To be fair to PolitiFact, it wasn’t only Will’s comment. But that’s not much of a defense, really. Different statements being grouped together into one “lie”–especially when they’re not lies, even if they’re mistaken–will not do wonders for PolitiFact’s already rock-bottom credibility. But in fact it’s really worse than that. Here’s PolitiFact’s explanation for their choice of “Lie of the Year,” demonstrating beyond any semblance of a doubt that those who run PolitiFact don’t understand the concept around which they’ve supposedly built their business model:
Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.
The claims — all wrong — distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.
You’ll notice right there that PolitiFact engages in its own bit of shameless dishonesty. Grouping those who worried it was easily communicable with those who claimed it was all a government conspiracy is far more deceitful than anything Will or others said. PolitiFact can argue Will was wrong to rely on that particular report, or that he might have misread the report. But PolitiFact is equating statements it knows are completely different.
Fox News analyst George Will claimed Ebola could be spread into the general population through a sneeze or a cough, saying the conventional wisdom that Ebola spreads only through direct contact with bodily fluids was wrong.
“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone, because it’s not airborne,” Will said. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.” False.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Ebola as “incredibly contagious,” “very transmissible” and “easy to catch.” Mostly False.
Internet conspirators claimed President Obama intended to detain people who had signs of illness. Pants on Fire. Bloggers also said the outbreak was started in a bioweapons lab funded by George Soros and Bill Gates. Pants on Fire.
You get the point. Why group them all together? Because “When combined, the claims edged the nation toward panic.” We can rate that one Pants on Fire. First and foremost, there was no national panic. You can add “panic” to “lie” in the list of words PolitiFact’s writers and editors cannot define. But what actually happened was the reverse: the disease seemed to be spreading more easily than previously thought, and commentators were reacting to it by wondering if U.S. officials were wrong about some aspects of the disease. (It’s also worth noting that in PolitiFact’s supposed debunking of Will’s claim, PolitiFact also got what he said wrong.)
But the other aspect of this is that officials were losing their own credibility, inviting such questions. People were told that if certain precautions were taken, Ebola would not be transmitted from one person to another. Then a nurse treating an Ebola patient claimed to follow those precautions and yet caught the disease. The CDC, for its part, permitted a nurse who treated an Ebola patient and had a fever to fly from Dallas to Ohio to visit family. She was soon diagnosed with Ebola. The CDC later said it erred in letting her fly.
So mistakes were made. There were those who violated quarantines, and medical professionals exposed to Ebola acted irresponsibly on top of the governmental agency’s mistakes. This was not a great moment for figures of authority. They lost some of the public’s trust, and invited the kinds of questions that PolitiFact scoffs at.
The country didn’t “panic.” People started asking questions, and were shouted down. The wacky statements from conspiracy theorists invited their own ridicule, sure, but they had no serious impact on the national conversation. That alone means they shouldn’t even be considered for “Lie of the Year.” I’m sure there were better choices, but it doesn’t matter: it’s clear PolitiFact wasn’t looking for them.