Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Flub & Scrub: Mitch McConnell edition, Part II

On May 28 PolitiFact published a new version of its May 24 fact check of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

It's mostly bad, but we'll start with the good.

The good

PolitiFact republished its first version of the story and archived it while publishing a new version.  PolitiFact improved its reporting in the new version by responding to criticism from healthcare expert Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute.  Cannon noted that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent a potentially intimidating letter to America's Health Insurance Plans:
An HHS spokesman told PolitiFact that the letter was in response to insurance companies using Obamacare as an excuse to raise premiums, and that the law gave the agency the authority to scrutinize excessive premium increases and require justifications from insurance companies. But we find Cannon's interpretation more accurate. The letter chastised the insurers for anti-Obamacare messages and threatened them with regulatory action.
Basely largely on Cannon's argument and the AHIP letter, PolitiFact upgraded its ruling from "Mostly False" to "Mostly True."

The bad

In its "Editor's note" preceding the new version of its McConnell fact check, PolitiFact blamed its failure on McConnell's office (bold emphasis added):
Editor's note: This item was initially published May 24, 2013, as a Mostly False because of the limited supporting information we received Sen. Mitch McConnell's office. The office cited a letter sent to Humana, a government contractor for Medicare Advantage. We found that letter provided relatively little support for the senator's claim and rated it Mostly False.
PolitiFact's failure was not the fault of McConnell's office.  We pointed out in our previous post that PolitiFact omitted key information from its original fact check--information readily available from a Government Accountability Office report that PolitiFact itself cited in the original reporting.  We failed to credit PolitiFact with its fractional disclosure of the key information:
[T]he Humana mailing prompted CMS to send a memo to all other Medicare Advantage and Part D contractors, warning them "to suspend potentially misleading mailings to beneficiaries about health care and insurance reform."
That doesn't sound so much like a "gag order," does it?  But the GAO report related a different account (bold emphasis added):
Although CMS's actions generally conformed to its policies and procedures, the September 21, 2009, memorandum instructing all MA organizations to discontinue communications on pending legislation while CMS conducted its investigation was unusual.
Note the difference between suspending "potentially misleading mailings" with "communications on pending legislation."  GAO uses language like the latter twice in its report.

But what about the version PolitiFact quotes?  All the CMS did was ask MA insurers to stop potentially misleading mailings.  Right?

Most likely the GAO has it right.  PolitiFact quoted from a CMS press release announcing the Sept. 21, 2009 memo, not the memo itself.  The press release does not appear to use language directly from the memo.  PolitiFact presents the press release quotation as though it comes from the memo.  The CMS press release does not express the type of policy the GAO highlighted in its report.  PolitiFact blew the reporting.

The new version of the McConnell fact check doesn't even mention the CMS memo or the GAO report (the latter remains among the sources listed on the sidebar).  The CMS memo, based on the GAO report detailing its instructions, serves as the best evidence supporting McConnell's claim.

We applaud PolitiFact for keeping the original version of the article available to the public, even if the posting followed a disappointing delay.  It should be a simple matter to archive the post as soon as the decision was made to replace it.  The original page URL could link to the archived version, explain why it was archived and assure the reader a new version is in the works.

We condemn PolitiFact for blaming its poor reporting on McConnell's office and for publishing a new version that's almost as defective as the first version.  Certainly the new "Mostly True" rating appropriately gives McConnell more credit, but it's inexcusable for journalists to simply leave out easily accessed information that supports McConnell.  That's just poor journalism.

Correction May 29, 2013:  Fixed title to agree with original title (added "Mitch" and reversed "Scrub" with "Flub") aside from the "Part II."

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