Tag Archives: Politifact

Ei quoque

One of the lamest journalistic tropes is the ei quoque (Scott's idea): well, they do it too!  It's not the tu quoque, because that means "you do it too!."  This captures the gist of Politifact's defense of its sorry fact-checking:

At a Republican campaign rally a few years ago, I asked one of the attendees how he got his news.

"I listen to Rush and read NewsMax," he said. "And to make sure I'm getting a balanced view, I watch Fox."

My liberal friends get their information from distinctly different sources — Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow. To make sure they get a balanced view, they click Facebook links — from their liberal friends.

This is life in our echo chamber nation. We protect ourselves from opinions we don't like and seek reinforcement from like-minded allies.

The paradox of the Internet age is that never before have we had access to more ideas and different thoughts. And yet, many of us retreat into comfy parlors where everyone agrees and the other side is always wrong. Each side can manufacture its truths and get the chorus to sing along.

Both sides do it!  Like the tu quoque, the is or ei quoque has conditions of relevance.  In this case, it is not relevant that "both sides do x" because the question concerns whether some fact f is true.  We can take it for granted, in any case, that all facts find homes in someone's advocacy.

At this point I was going to quote a section from Paul Krugman's column yesterday, but for some reason, every time I paste the passage into the piece, it deletes my entire post.  Can anyone explain this?  New York Times time bomb?  Here's the link.  The passage, despite the Times' paywall, is worth reading in this regard.  Or tl:dr: ei quoque is an empirical question.  In its usual employment, he argues, it's just not the case.  Here is a better example anyway.  Two sit-ins on the Hannity Show do the usual everyone is biased against conservatives segment.  And they come up with the following thought experiment:

BOZELL: How long do you think Sean Hannity's show would last if four times in one sentence, he made a comment about, say, the President of the United States, and said that he looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead? Which, by the way, you might want to say that Barack Obama does. Everybody on the left would come forward and demand he be fired within five minutes for being so insulting towards a leader of the United States.

And so it goes.  Chris Matthews called Newt Gingrich a car bomber, therefore I'll call the President a skinny, ghetto crackhead.  Ei quoque; ei quoque.  There's always an ei quoque. 

 BTW, anyone a Latinist who prefers ille quoque to is quoque (mutatis mutandis)?


In their view, A is A.

No doubt many have now heard of the controversy surrounding Politifact's "Lie of the Year."  So has Politifact, apparently.  They respond to all of the very straightforward criticism with some very general points about how everyone is biased.  Then they remark:

PolitiFact had its latest brush with the Echo Chamber Nation this week. We gave our Lie of the Year to the Democrats' claim that the Republicans "voted to end Medicare." That set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere, with many saying that claim was not actually wrong. We've received about 1,500 e-mails about our choice and only a few agreed with us.

Some of the response has been substantive and thoughtful. The critics said we ignored the long-term effects of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan and that we were wrong to consider his privatized approach to be Medicare. In their view, that is an end to Medicare.

We've read the critiques and see nothing that changes our findings. We stand by our story and our conclusion that the claim was the most significant falsehood of 2011. We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false.

Our competitors FactCheck.org and the Washington Post's FactChecker had also said the Medicare claim was false — and this week both picked it for their biggest-falsehoods-of-the-year lists.

"In their view," is a pretty hilarious qualifier in front of the key point of factual disagreement.  After all, according to critics of Politifact, changing medicare from a single-payer government run system to a voucher-driven private system, which is absent the guarantees of the government system, is to end medicare.  Medicare is the government system; something else, not medicare, is the private system.  Sure, medicare will not end tomorrow on this plan.  But if you're under 55, it's ended for you.  It seems to me that they ought to respond, then, to those points.  They don't.  They point to their equally under theorized counterparts.  They argue:

First the truth: The budget plan that Republicans pushed through the House in 2011 would have radically changed Medicare in the future — for workers now under age 55. Starting in the year 2022, the GOP plan called for new Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private insurance with the help of federal subsidies.

But the plan would have continued the present Medicare system indefinitely for those now getting benefits, and also for all those who reach age 65 during the next decade.

But the truth didn’t stop Democrats from misrepresenting the proposal shamelessly to scare senior citizens and win election votes. They tested this tactic in a May 26 special House election in New York state, running ads accusing the Republican candidate of endorsing a plan that would “essentially end Medicare” and amount to “cutting benefits for seniors,” claims that were far from the truth.   

This is even worse than the Politifact piece, because they seem to get the basic idea, but deny it in the same sentence.  The rest of the piece is worse, as it then finds some weaker version of the "end medicare" meme, attacks that weak-man style, and concludes the whole thing is a lie. 

Now imagine this counter example.  We have a private insurance system in the United States.  Hurray for us, I know.  What if we replaced this private insurance system with a government single-payer system?  Would that amount to essentially ending private health insurance?  I imagine Politifact and FactCheck.org would answer no, as we would still have this private health insurance, only the government would pay for it, and it wouldn't be private.  This idea I can endorse.   

How equivocations work

Offhand I can think of two uses for deploying the subtle semantic strategy called "equivocation."  The first is to cover up the fact that you're lying about something; the second is to make it look like someone else is lying because of a verbal sleight of hand.  This latter is exactly what "Politifact" did with their now infamous "lie of the year" award.  First the lie of the year (via WashMo):

Republicans muscled a budget through the House of Representatives in April that they said would take an important step toward reducing the federal deficit. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the plan kept Medicare intact for people 55 or older, but dramatically changed the program for everyone else by privatizing it and providing government subsidies.

Democrats pounced. Just four days after the party-line vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a Web ad that said seniors will have to pay $12,500 more for health care “because Republicans voted to end Medicare.” […]

PolitiFact debunked the Medicare charge in nine separate fact-checks rated False or Pants on Fire, most often in attacks leveled against Republican House members.

Now, PolitiFact has chosen the Democrats’ claim as the 2011 Lie of the Year. 

It turns out, on the most reasonable account, the lie of the year is literally true.  The whole thing, of course, hinges on the meaning of "medicare."  This single-payer government insurance program covers everyone over the age of 65.  The Ryan plan, about which the lie of the year has allegedly been made, proposed to end the "single payer" part of that equation by eventual phase out, replacing it with a voucher system for private insurance.  All the while, of course, this program retains the name "medicare."  But it's not "medicare". 

How not?  A fun analogy, from WashMo:

I’ve been trying to think of the best analogy for this. How about this one: imagine someone owns a Ferrari. It’s expensive and drives beautifully, and the owner desperately wants to keep his car intact. Now imagine I took the car away, removed the metallic badge off the trunk that says “Ferrari,” I stuck it on a golf cart, and I handed the owner the keys.

“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.

“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”

That's about it.