Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What if we lived in a world where PolitiFact applied to itself the standards it applies to others?

In that impossible world where PolitiFact applied its own standards to itself, PolitiFact would doubtless crack down on PolitiFact's misleading headlines, like the following headline over a story by Lauren Carroll:


While the PolitiFact headline claims that the Trump budget cuts Medicaid, and the opening paragraph says Trump's budget "directly contradicts" President Trump's promise not to cut Medicaid, in short order Carroll's story reveals that the Medicaid budget goes up under the new Trump budget.

So it's a cut when the Medicaid budget goes up?

Such reasoning has precedent at PolitiFact. We noted in December 2016 that veteran PolitiFact fact-checker Louis Jacobson wrote that the most natural way to interpret "budget cut" was against the baseline of expected spending, not against the previous year's spending.

Jacobson's approach in December 2016 helped President Obama end up with a "Compromise" rating on his aim to cut $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in spending. By PolitiFact's reckoning, the president cut $427 billion from the budget. PolitiFact obtained that figure by subtracting actual outlays from the estimates the Congressional Budget Office published in 2012 and using the cumulative total for the four years.

Jacobson took a different tack back in 2014 when he faulted a Republican ad attacking the Affordable Care Act's adjustments to Medicare spending (which we noted in the earlier linked article):
First, while the ad implies that the law is slicing Medicare benefits, these are not cuts to current services. Rather, as Medicare spending continues to rise over the next 10 years, it will do so at a slower pace would [sic] have occurred without the law. So claims that Obama would "cut" Medicare need more explanation to be fully accurate.
We can easily rework Jacobson's paragraph to address Carroll's story:
First, while the headline implies that the proposed budget is slicing Medicaid benefits, these are not cuts to current services. Rather, as Medicaid spending continues to rise over the next 10 years, it will do so at a slower pace than would occur without the law. So claims that Trump would "cut" Medicaid need more explanation to be fully accurate.
PolitiFact is immune to the standard it applies to others.

We also note that a pledge not to cut a program's spending is not reasonably taken as a pledge not to slow the growth of spending for that program. Yet that unreasonable interpretation is the foundation of PolitiFact's "Trump-O-Meter" article.


Correction May 24, 2017: Changed the first incidence of "law" in our reworking of Jacobson's sentence to "proposed budget." It better fits the facts that way.
Update May 26, 2017: Added link to the PolitiFact story by Lauren Carroll

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