Unprofessional: Biased Politifact tries, and fails, to defend its sloppy "false" rating on Obamacare claim

For the uninitiated, Politifact is a left-leaning “fact check” organization whose biases have been well-documented over the years. Two famously egregious examples are the outfit’s declaration that President Obama’s “if you like your plan, you can keep it” pledge was “true” at the onset of the Obamacare debate, before ultimately listing the exact same vow as the “lie of the year” after it predictably unraveled. Politifact’s worst sin, however, is the eye-poppingly unequal treatment to which it subjects politicians from the two major political parties. This supposedly neutral fact-checker is much, much, much more likely to examine and rate conservatives’ claims than liberals’. Setting aside their sometimes-questionable methods of discerning the truth once a statement or topic is under review, Politifact’s selection bias leads to far more scrutiny of Republicans than Democrats. Here’s an excerpt from The Federalist’s deep dive published a few months ago:

In the last article, we that showed top fact-checking website PolitiFact generally rates Republicans as less honest than Democrats and their style betrays the need to constantly explain why Republican statements that seem true are actually false. While this approach gives us some insight into how PolitiFact skews against Republicans, another important component is which facts they choose to check…Rubio was the junior senator from Florida for nearly six years before coming in third place in the 2016 Republican primary. Yet PolitiFact was checking him nearly every month since a year before he was elected to the Senate. Rubio was fact-checked as many times before he took office than long-time senator and erstwhile Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been checked in his entire career. Before he even started his presidential campaign Rubio was fact-checked 10 times more Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been during her tenure…Before he even announced his run for president, PolitiFact had checked Rubio more times (87 fact-checks) than they had checked Clinton during her entire 2008 presidential run (83 fact-checks). It seems over-eager to check a four-year junior senator more than a presidential candidate, vice president, Senate majority leader, and speaker of the House.

Nor was Rubio alone in this. Before he ran for president, Sen. Ted Cruz was fact-checked 46 times, more than any Democratic senator we checked. House Speaker Paul Ryan was fact-checked nearly twice as often as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, even if you take out every single fact check from the time period in which he was the Republican vice presidential nominee. Michelle Bachmann (remember her? Three-term congresswoman who placed sixth in the Iowa caucus) was fact-checked a stunning 51 times, nearly as many times as governor, senator, and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

This accompanying infographic is extraordinary:

Those statistics speak for themselves. Politifact sometimes does thorough and worthwhile work, but the preponderance of evidence regarding the focus of their analyses might lead an impartial observer (actually impartial, not Politifact ‘impartial’) to reasonably conclude that they’re an opposition research leg of the Democratic Party. With that as a backdrop, Politifact this week rated an Obamacare-related statement by Hugh Hewitt as “false.” Hewitt cited an assertion from “the president” of health insurance giant Aetna (it was actually the CEO, a technicality Politifact later leaned on to blame Hewitt for their shoddy work) that the failing current law is caught in a “death spiral.” That original quote may ring a bell for many Townhall readers because we wrote about it at the time. The executive’s bottom-line point was that poor overall enrollment numbers, insufficient numbers of young and healthy enrollees to balance out risk pools, and chronically rising premiums are pushing Obamacare’s individual healthcare market into a death spiral. Indeed, the marketplace is so systemically unhealthy that the residents of one-third of US all counties will only have just one “choice” in healthcare providers this year. Fewer choices and higher rates drive away more consumers who determine that Obamacare as a bad, costly deal for them, leaving the existing risk pools even more disproportionately compromised of sicker people who are more expensive to cover. That’s the “death spiral” that the Aetna CEO and Hugh Hewitt recognize, as evidenced by empirical data and trends

But Politifact rated Hewitt’s observation as “false” because the entirety of Obamacare has yet to cross an actuarial rubicon that meets a hyper-literal and narrow definition of the term. In a contentious on-air grilling on Hewitt’s show, Politifact’s Executive Director blamed Hewitt for assigning the wrong title to the Aetna executive, and said that by mentioning the New York Times within the same answer (Hewitt says this was a separate reference), the radio host attributed the Aetna story to the wrong source.  Hewitt noted that by simply Googling “Aetna” and “death spiral,” the organization’s analysts could have very easily found news accounts to back up Hewitt’s Meet the Press reference to the Aetna chief’s statement (which prompted the “fact check”).  Hewitt also alleged that Politifact’s efforts to reach out to him for comment were insufficient, asking in vain for the outfit’s specific policy on what constitutes an acceptable good-faith effort to reach the subject of a fact-check prior to publication.

The full exchange is worth a listen.  Perhaps the best quote from the interview is Politifact’s non-healthcare-expert-slash-self-appointed-arbiter-of-truth asking how the CEO of a healthcare company would know whether a healthcare policy is entering a death spiral:  “What is his evidence?” Well, his evidence might be…his own company’s decision to join the mass exodus of providers from Obamacare, due to unsustainable financial losses.  Companies don’t abandon profitable markets out of spite.  They do so based on lots and lots of data.  And that data has led Aetna, HumanaBlue CrossUnited Healthcare and others to extricate themselves from Obamacare’s crumbling markets.  That’s the obvious context of the “death spiral” shorthand used by the Aetna CEO and echoed by Hewitt on NBC.  Yet Politifact declared that Hewitt’s statement was untrue because Obamacare’s deteriorating status quo does not completely meet the textbook definition of a full-blown death spiral, and because they couldn’t be bothered to look up the Aetna official’s widely-reported quote.

Parting thought: Even though Obamacare’s failures are manifestly clear and poised to get worse, any mention of that enduring reality must now include a recognition that Republicans (successfully) campaigned against the law for seven years, then failed to unify around legislation to repeal and replace it, as promised.  They now own part of the existing mess, at least until they can get their act together.  Might that be happening?

Working on a constructive and viable Plan B is preferable to abandoning the issue altogether, of course, but what’s the endgame here?  And is “we’re working on it” just a face-saving posture to convince conservative voters that the GOP’s failure wasn’t as comprehensive as it appears?

UPDATE – The executive director of Politifact, who claims to be a nonpartisan actor, ridiculed my original Townhall post on Twitter this afternoon, stating that my conclusions backed up his organization’s verdict, and alleging that I tackled the subject to get clicks. Here is his tweet, followed by my reply:

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece is cross-posted at Townhall.com