Tuesday, July 4, 2017

PolitiFact revises its own history

We remember.

We remember when PolitiFact openly admitted that when Republicans charged that Obamacare cut Medicare it tended to rate such claims either "Half True" or "Mostly False."
PolitiFact has looked askance at bare statements that Obamacare cuts Medicare, rating them either Half True or Mostly False depending on how they are worded.
Nowadays, PolitiFact has reconsidered. It now says it generally rated claims that Obamacare cut Medicare as "Half True."
We did a series of fact-checks about the back-and-forth and generally rated the Republican attacks Half True.
PolitiFact doubtless took the latter position in response to criticism of its claims about Republican "cuts" to Medicaid. PolitiFact has flatly said Trump's budget cuts Medicaid (no caveats) despite the fact that outlays for Medicaid rise every year under the Trump budget. PolitiFact has also joined the mainstream media in attacking the Trump administration for denying it cuts Medicaid, rating those statements "Mostly False" or worse.

Given the context, PolitiFact's fact check of Kellyanne Conway looks like a retrospective attempt to excuse PolitiFact's inconsistency.

Unfortunately for PolitiFact writer Jon Greenberg, the facts do not support his defense narrative. The "Half True" ratings he cites tended to come from joint claims, that 1) Obamacare's Medicare cuts went to 2) pay for the Affordable Care Act. It's completely true that the ACA used Medicare savings to cut the price tag for the legislation. Every version of the CBO's assessment of the Democrats' health care reform bill will confirm it.

When PolitiFact rated isolated GOP claims that Democrats' health care reform cut Medicare, the verdict tended to come in as "Mostly False." It wasn't even close. Keep reading below the fold to see the proof.

So, PolitiFact writer Jon Greenberg either isn't so great at checking his facts, or else he is deliberately misleading his audience. The same goes for the editor, Angie Drobnic Holan.

PolitiFact's fact checks of claims about Medicare cuts, in chronological order as they appear on this topical list of stories at PolitiFact.com:

August 2009: Yes, actually President Obama was talking about cutting Medicare benefits, at least in part.

September 2010: The Affordable Care Act has passed, and we have no fact check from PolitiFact looking specifically at whether the bill cuts Medicare. Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott (R), however, reasoned that since the ACA cut projected growth of Medicare spending it amounted to a Medicare cut, and reasoned that his opponent's support of the bill amounted to a support of that cut.

September 2010: A seniors' advocacy group releases an ad claiming the ACA will cut $500 billion from Medicare and "cut the quality of our care." PolitiFact National explains "The ad loses points for accuracy because the $500 billion aren't actual cuts but reductions to future spending for a program that will still grow significantly in the next 10 years."

September 2010: Another compound claim, including the notion the ACA will "gut" Medicare. PolitiFact helpfully explains "The new law would indeed slow the rate of growth of the broader Medicare program by roughly that amount over 10 years. But it's not a slam-dunk that this represents a cut." Of course we know from the first rating on our list that it's "Half True" the law will cut Medicare benefits.

October 2010: PolitiFact Oregon chips in with another compound fact check, noting "The ad conflates actual cuts with decreases in future spending, over the next decade for a program expected to expand, and it fails to mention any of the benefits to seniors under the new Medicare program."

October 2010: Crossroads GPS returned with a different version of its earlier ad, this one dedicated to California Democrat Barbara Boxer. PolitiFact says "Yes, Boxer voted for the health care bill, but it didn't cut $500 billion out of the current Medicare program. Instead, it slowed growth over the next 10 years."

October 2010: Finally PolitiFact gives us a rating for an isolated claim of the ACA's cut to Medicare, courtesy of PolitiFact Wisconsin. PolitiFact Wisconsin notes (bold emphasis added): "Ron Johnson says Feingold supported a measure that cut more than $500 billion from Medicare. That makes it sound like money out of the Medicare budget today, when Medicare spending will actually increase over the next 10 years. What Johnson labels a cut is an attempt to slow the projected increase in spending by $500 billion. Under the plan, guaranteed benefits are not cut. In fact, some benefits are increased."

PolitiFact National found Obama's promise to protect Medicare's guaranteed benefits "Half True."

The ACA slows the growth of Medicare spending and cuts benefits. But PolitiFact says the cuts aren't real cuts.

February 2011: PolitiFact Ohio gives us our second rating of an isolated claim about the ACA's Medicare cuts. It's another "Mostly False," which PolitiFact still called "Barely True" at the time. PolitiFact Ohio clearly believed it was following precedent: "PolitiFact examined repeated claims by politicians and interest groups in 2010 that the health care reform bill would cut Medicare by $500 billion, including one by the 60 Plus Association in an attack ad against Renacci’s election opponent, Democrat John Boccieri. Each time the claim was found to be Barely True, no matter who or where it was uttered."

May 2011: In a change of pace, PolitiFact examined Republican Senator Marco Rubio's argument that the ACA cut Medicare because it altered the projected baseline while the GOP plan was not a cut because it merely adopted the projected baseline for the ACA. PolitiFact would not have it "The vote taken by Congress was not to cut Medicare but to reduce the rate of growth by $500 billion by targeting inefficiencies in the program. That's a cost-reduction plan that Ryan himself kept intact in his own budget proposal."

June 2011: PolitiFact Florida gives us our first "Half True" for a Republican claim about Medicare cuts, apparently largely dependent on the subject specifying the cuts as cuts to projected spending. PolitiFact says "There are elements of truth in each claim. The $500 billion in 'cuts' are actually cuts to future increased spending, so we give Haridopolos some credit for not simply calling it cuts to Medicare as so many others have done."

June 2011: Close on the heels of the "Half True" from PolitiFact Florida, PolitiFact National gives presidential candidate Mitt Romney a "Half True." Was Romney's secret his avoidance of the word "cut"? We're not sure what made the difference for this one.

June 2011: PolitiFact Ohio drops a "False" on the idea that Democrat Sherrod Brown voted to cut Medicare by $500 billion: "The NRSC’s claim cites a real figure -- $500 billion -- that is part of the health reform debate. But it incorrectly describes it as $500 billion in Medicare cuts, rather than as decreases in the rate of growth of future spending."

July 2011: PolitiFact Texas gets in the game, returning us to "Mostly False" territory: "The referenced $500 billion figure depends on a slowing in the pace of Medicare cost increases. That’s not the same as cutting back. Medicare spending will still grow; benefits will expand." It looks to us like PolitiFact Texas' element of truth came from the potential for lost Medicare services if provider networks shrink under the ACA's spending restrictions.

September 2011: PolitiFact checks a compound claim from Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. PolitiFact finds a germ of truth in part of the claim, contrasting that with the (untrue?) part of about $500 million coming out of Medicare: "There is a small amount of truth in her statement in that future savings from Medicare are planned to offset new costs created by the law. But the law attempts to curtail the rapid growth of future Medicare spending, not cut current funding."

November 2011: In another compound claim, Florida Republican Allen West said the ACA cut $500 billion from Medicare and the Independent Payment Advisory Board would make health care decisions "for all Americans." PolitiFact Florida said "West merely said 'cut $500 billion from Medicare,' a misleading oversimplification. The statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details." That summary matches PolitiFact's definition of "Half True."

PolitiFact's averaging of the "Half True" element with the "Mostly False" element, if we're interpreting PolitiFact correctly, gave West a "Mostly False."

November 2011: Just when you thought cutting $500 million from Medicare was half true, along comes PolitiFact Oregon. "Generally, we’d give this a "Mostly False" given that there is a small kernel of truth to the statement. But we also have a policy of taking into account whether the speaker is willfully repeating something we’ve said wasn’t true before -- and in this case we have said it several times." So "Mostly False" but with a penalty.

December 2011: PolitiFact National cites and quotes the above PolitiFact Oregon fact check, apparently finding Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama cut Medicare no better than "Mostly False," and flatly "False" if Romney gets the Cornilles penalty.

April 2012: Is it the Cornilles penalty? We don't know. PolitiFact cites the "Half True" rating Romney received in June 2011 and yet gives him a "False" rating. Perhaps the ruling reflects an unstated double dose of the Cornilles penalty?

May 2012: PolitiFact Florida finds some truth to the idea that slowing the growth of Medicare helps fund Obamacare.

May 2012: Republican Jim Renacci and PolitiFact Ohio, together again. Same end result. This one qualifies as a more-or-less simple claim, though PolitiFact placed quite a bit of focus on Renacci's use of the term "gutted."

June 2012: Is it starting to look like PolitiFact thinks its "Mostly False" that the ACA cut Medicare by $500 billion? Here's PolitiFact Virginia to throw a spanner in the works: "The Affordable Care Act contains about $564 billion in cost-savings measures for Medicare over 10 years. But the definition of a cut means there would be a reduction in spending. That’s not the case here. Medicare spending will continue to expand. The law will slow the projected rate of growth." So the American Crossroads ad in question garnered a "False" rating.

July 2012: Wisconsin Republican Sean Duffy says the ACA "slashed" $500 billion from Medicare. PolitiFact Wisconsin says: "There is an element of truth in his statement because Medicare spending will grow by about $500 billion less than it would have without the law. But the law has not already reduced Medicare spending by $500 billion, as Duffy suggests." If only Duffy had access to "journalistic shorthand."

August 2012: What took PolitiFact New Jersey so long? "The national health care law does not cut funding for Medicare, though it does decrease projections for future spending growth. Spending on the program will continue to grow, but at a slower pace."

August 2012: Did Democrat Bill Nelson support cutting $500 billion from Medicare via his support for the ACA? PolitiFact Florida says "Our previous rulings have shown that there is no vast well of money already allocated that is being cut, and the programs being funded are a part of government health care services, of which Medicare is the largest." So the projected growth of the Medicare budget was slowed partly to help fund Medicare, not new government programs like health care exchange subsidies. Got it?

August 2012: The number goes up! Mitt Romney says the ACA robs Medicare of $716 billion to pay for Obamacare. PolitiFact says "The only element of truth here is that the health care law seeks to reduce future Medicare spending, and the tally of those cost reductions over the next 10 years is $716 billion." Formerly (see ruling just above), PolitiFact had called it true that the money would help pay for the ACA.

August 2012: PolitiFact's wording in this fact check suggests that the notion of a $741 billion cut to Medicare is "Pants on Fire" false: "There’s only one ruling for such heated and misleading claims: Pants on Fire!" When parts of compound claims have different ratings, PolitiFact tends to use something along the lines of "on balance" in its summary.

August 2012: Mitt Romney makes another compound claim about Medicare cuts. PolitiFact Florida does the rating, but does not make it particularly clear how it assessed the Medicare cut part of the claim.

August 2012: Jim Renacci and PolitiFact Ohio at least appear consistent. But where's the Cornilles penalty?

August 2012: PolitiFact Rhode Island cited two past Medicare cut rulings, including the Romney one from August 2012, giving Republican Michael Riley a "Half True" rating for his version of the compound claim. PolitiFact Rhode Island emphasizes the importance of whether the cuts affect the provision of benefits, but does not follow earlier PolitiFact rulings affirming the loss of some benefits.

August 2012: PolitiFact rates yet another compound version of the Medicare cut claim. PolitiFact says: "Neither Obama nor his health care law literally cut funding from the Medicare program’s budget. Still, the number has a slight basis in fact."

September 2012: PolitiFact New Jersey takes on a compound claim, apparently finding it false that the ACA cuts Medicare: "The health care law decreases growth in future Medicare spending by $716 billion over 10 years. It does not cut that amount from the current Medicare budget."

October 2012: Has Mitt Romney worn PolitiFact down and made the fact checkers forget about the Cornilles penalty? PolitiFact says "That amount -- $716 billion -- refers to Obamacare’s reductions in Medicare spending over 10 years, primarily paid to insurers and hospitals. But the statement gives the impression that the law takes money already allocated to Medicare away from current recipients." Romney is making a simple claim, and PolitiFact's justification looks quite like what we see for "Mostly False" ratings.

October 2012: PolitiFact Florida takes on a compound claim. Of the Medicare cut it says "The health care law cuts future growth of Medicare spending by about $700 billion but it still grows. This part of the ad has some truth to it but requires further explanation." PolitiFact's description matches none of the definitions for its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings. "Some truth" perhaps best matches the "Mostly False" category.

October 2012: Republican Connie Mack makes one of the standard compound claims and gets the usual treatment. PolitiFact Florida says "It does not literally cut funding from the Medicare program’s budget. Rather, the health care law instituted a number of changes to try to bring down future health care costs in the program."

October 2012: The Ohio Republican Party updates one of Mitt Romney's earlier claims (April 2012). Romney's claim was rated "False" but the ORP does better than either Romney or repeat offender Renacci. PolitiFact Ohio says "That’s why claims that Obama would "cut" Medicare need more explanation to be fully accurate. And in the past, PolitiFact has rated similar statements Half True or Mostly False, depending on the wording and context." We note that PolitiFact Ohio cited two past PolitiFact ratings of Romney on the Medicare cuts--both rated "Half True."

September 2012: PolitiFact New Hampshire weighs in on a compound claim. PolitiFact says "Last month, we chided Bass for referring to the Medicare reductions as a robbery. This time, the Congressman changed his language, speaking instead to a "$700 trillion [sic] cut," a claim we deem more accurate. But, he still did not accurately characterize the nature of the cuts, which will be realized over time. Similar statements have been ruled Half True in the past for failing to make these distinctions." PolitiFact New Hampshire cited the "Half True" ruling on this topic Romney received in June 2011.

We don't know why PolitiFact used a picture of Democrat Karen Bass

October 2012: While not on the subject of the ACA's cuts to Medicare, we found interesting the "Mostly True" rating PolitiFact Florida gave Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for claiming his opponent's tax plan would result in various cuts to federal programs. Those cuts were reductions in the rate of increase. The ruling represents a clear double standard, so far as we can tell. PolitiFact Florida does not reveal that the cuts are to projected growth, a point PolitiFact consistently stresses when defending the ACA's reductions in Medicare spending. It does quote an expert who refers to comparison to a "baseline" but it does not inform its readers of the nature of the baseline.

October 2012: It took PolitiFact Florida no time at all to remember that cutting spending growth is not truly a spending cut. "Obama did not propose a cut to Medicare’s budget in his health care law," PolitiFact says. "Rather, the law made several changes to slow the growth of Medicare costs. These changes primarily affected insurance companies and hospitals -- not beneficiaries." Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) eked out a "Half True" thanks to a compound claim.

November 2013: PolitiFact's PunditFact branch rated former Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) on his claim that the ACA raised taxes and cut Medicare. PunditFact produced a clear breakdown of the ruling by stating it was definitely true the ACA raised taxes. Together, the statements rated "Mostly True," implying a "Half True" rating for the Medicare cut.

November 2013: Did Democrat Mark Pryor vote to cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare? PolitiFact says "Cotton’s ad claimed that 'Pryor cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare.' In reality, the Affordable Care Act calls for a slowed growth of Medicare funding, not a slash to current funds." PolitiFact's rationale implies a rating of "Mostly False" or lower for the Medicare part of the compound claim, for it accepts that the savings fund Obamacare.

February 2014: Does Obamacare include a $700 billion cut to Medicare? This simple claim received a "Half True" and the rating shared the rationale typically seen for the lower ratings. PolitiFact says "(T)he NRCC said the Affordable Care Act includes a "$700 billion cut from Medicare for seniors." There is reduction in spending to Medicare outlays, but it’s fueled by finding savings in the program, a move that Republicans actually supported in the Ryan budget. Medicare spending still increases in the coming years."

July 2014: Does Obamacare cut Medicare by $700 billion? PolitiFact treats an Obamacare claim from Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). PolitiFact says "The law is projected to reduce spending on Medicare by about $700 billion over 10 years, but those reductions in spending are more of a slowed growth rate rather than a budget cut."

September 2014: PolitiFact Virginia, as though sensing a shift toward "Half True," gives Republican Ed Gillespie's simple claim the traditional rating: "Mostly False." PolitiFact Virginia says "PolitiFact has looked askance at bare statements that Obamacare cuts Medicare, rating them either Half True or Mostly False depending on how they are worded."

September 2014: Once again we have one of the most common compound claims. One claim concerns the Medicare cuts and the other concerns the use of the savings to support Obamacare. PolitiFact says "The statement that suggests that the law is reducing benefits now, across the board, but it’s actually reducing the future growth of Medicare spending. The law also targets these reductions at health-care providers, not beneficiaries. And the ad ignores new spending from the law that would benefit Medicare beneficiaries, such as expanded coverage for prescriptions."

July 2015: A MoveOn.org ad slammed Sen. Ron Johnson's (R-Wis.) support of a trade bill that trims the 2025 projected budget for Medicare by $700 million. PolitiFact Wisconsin's credit, it relies on the same logic it used on claims about the ACA's Medicare cuts: "Even with a $700 million reduction, spending on the program will grow by about $114 billion, or 13.2 percent between 2024 and 2025. In other words, spending will increase, just by a smaller amount."

August 2015: Did Obamacare rob Medicare of $700 billion? PolitiFact says "The law does reduce Medicare spending, but not in the way Huckabee suggests. The Affordable Care Act aims to cut future Medicare costs by reducing payments to private insurers and hospitals, not beneficiaries, though this could indirectly squeeze beneficiaries."


From our list, one may reasonably argue that 11 cases represent a rating of "Half True" for the claim that the ACA cut Medicare. Almost three times that number better fit the "Mostly False" description--or worse.

Overall, this subject study paints a picture of a fact checker with an unprofessional and inconsistent approach to Medicare cuts. This snapshot fits very well with our argument that PolitiFact causes unfair harm to Republicans far more often than it does to Democrats.

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