PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter: Deep in the Red Zone
Government Takeover—as in, of health care. That is the 2010 Lie of the Year according to PolitiFact, the fact-checking feature of the St. Petersburg Times. And the Lie of the Year is indeed a whopper. It is a bitter consolation to supporters of health care reform to see Government Takeover up on the liar’s marquee, because this phrase is behind much of the 2010 Republican surge. And it demonstrates that—surprise!—in a democracy lies matter, and have consequences.
So what did PolitiFact say about the Lie of the Year? They gave it a flat-out False rating. Stipulating that there was no government takeover, Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan wrote for PolitiFact:
“But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn't let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.”
This gets to the heart of it. Facts are irrelevant and mainstream journalism has simply stopped doing its job. In virtually every interview in which Republicans uttered the Lie of the Year they were allowed to score their points without challenge. Hundreds of examples of the success of the tactic and failure of the press are on record.
Let’s go back to PolitiFact to clear up any confusion. Adair wrote:
“The phrase is simply not true.”
Health care reform as proposed and passed relies on the free market. Exchanges are private. The government will run no hospitals. It won’t “nationalize” doctors. The public option is DOA. The law merely offers financial assistance to people who cannot afford premiums. “It relies largely on the existing system of health coverage provided by employers.” This is PolitiFact talking, not me.
The Toxic Bloom of 2009
Increasingly, the truth walks in empty halls while lies parade like media darlings. And these particular media darlings are by and large Republican. PolitiFact credits Republican strategist Frank Luntz with the brilliant, dirty tactic, which he introduced in a 28-page memo in the spring of 2009. So, in fact government takeover should win a retroactive award for 2009 as well. By that summer the phrase was in full toxic bloom. On August 5, 2009 I wrote a piece on Open Salon, “Pipsqueak Blogger Uncovers Health Care Coup D’Etat: Government Takeover Imminent!” lampooning the over-the-top repetition of the phrase in Republican talking points. By simply repeating roughly 30 instances of nearly identical speech on the part of Republicans and aligned interests like John Boehner, John McCain, Jim DeMint, John Thune, Haley Barbour, the Wall Street Journal and the John Birch Society website, it was clear these were parrots parroting parrots.
Hah hah, the joke was on us. It stuck and it stuck hard. Fox News picked up the ball and ran for a touchdown. Out of 1.9 million Google references for government takeover, Fox News is linked with 25 percent of them. The connection was reinforced by the recent World Public Opinion survey that showed Fox News viewers are statistically inclined to believe a variety of false propositions. These include:
- The stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
- Most Republicans opposed TARP (12 points more likely)
- Obama not proven to be U.S.-born (31 points more likely).
Where is Murrow When You Need Him?
When is someone in the mainstream media going play Edward R. Murrow to Fox’s McCarthy and say that lies matter? When is someone going to stand up and say that lies degrade democracy, cheapen our public discourse and spur the success of demagogues? It is not like it’s a secret. This stuff is right out in the open. Here’s Rep. Mike Pence, (R-Ind.) on Fox News, On the Record, with Greta Van Susteren, “You bet every member of Congress who votes for this bill ought to read it, read it thoroughly, and understand that what we're looking at here amounts to nothing more than a government takeover of our health care economy, paid for with nearly a trillion dollars in new taxes on individuals and small businesses.” (7/28/09).
I was on it again the week following my first government takeover post in August 2009, writing:
“Isn’t it obvious that all our careful distinctions about creating a public pool of risk-sharing have gone completely unheard?—drowned out by the rhetoric against a nationalized health care system, a government takeover—an option that isn’t even on the table, and has never been.”
But it didn’t matter. The lie was already winning out as Tea Partiers took it to the streets.
Lies come in many shapes and sizes, but it is the truly big ones that have the potential to highjack a democracy. It’s hard to win on the merits. It’s hard to win with the truth. But if we can’t win with truth, only truthiness, why bother? This is the conclusion of millions of disaffected former or non-voters who have just turned away. And guess what? The smaller the electorate, more a certain profile of ideology wins.
I am not sure anyone even notices a PolitiFact Lie of the Year, but they should—and they should be shocked. Because this is not one of those over-the-top Pants-on-Fire laughers, like the 2009 Lie of the Year—death panels. This is a statement that reeks of truthiness while containing none of the real thing. It is a dangerous statement because it has been accepted as gospel by 53 percent of the American electorate according to a Bloomberg poll cited by PolitiFact.
Its success was due to repetition. And repetition requires complicity, a willing abrogation of the responsibility to campaign and govern in good faith, in favor of going for jugular. In 2009, it was popular to say, “Elections have consequences.” In 2011 we would do well to learn that lies do, too.