PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year of 2014 falls apart only two months later

There were so many candidates for PolitiFact to choose from when it selected its Lie of the Year for 2014. From President Barack Obama’s insistence that the Islamic State was merely al-Qaeda’s jayvee team to Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-CA) claim that ISIS had sought to infiltrate the United States via the Mexican border, PolitiFact had a wealth of misleading statements to dub the most egregious. Among the candidate for LOTY, however, was one that proved just too tempting to pass up.

In October, the columnist George Will directly contradicted the president and a variety of federal health officials when he insisted that the African hemorrhagic fever Ebola could spread via fluids expectorated as a result of a cough or a sneeze. The president’s honor had been called into question, an offense that Rudy Giuliani recently discovered the press simply cannot countenance. Even despite the fact that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poster backed up Will’s warning, PolitiFact dubbed his and other alleged exaggerations of the threat posed by Ebola as their LOTY.

The medical literature says sneezing and coughing are not part of the disease’s typical symptoms, and experts we reached drew a bright line between what might happen in a hospital isolation ward and a person with early symptoms of Ebola before he or she is admitted.

There is no evidence that Ebola has been transmitted in the general public through coughing or sneezing.

Will took a medical commentary out of context. We rate the claim False.

“PolitiFact has determined that is a sweeter objective to score political points against Republicans than to hold Obama responsible for the collapse of his principle mandate as president – to extricate America from Middle Eastern wars,” I wrote at the time.

Just about two months later, PolitiFact’s LOTY imploded.

“A team of prominent researchers suggested Thursday that limited airborne transmission of the Ebola virus is ‘very likely,’” The Washington Post reported on Thursday, “a hypothesis that could reignite the debate that started last fall after one of the scientists offered the same opinion.”

“It is very likely that at least some degree of Ebola virus transmission currently occurs via infectious aerosols generated from the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, or medical procedures, although this has been difficult to definitively demonstrate or rule out, since those exposed to infectious aerosols also are most likely to be in close proximity to, and in direct contact with, an infected case,” the scientists wrote. Their peer-reviewed analysis was published in mBio, a journal of the American Society of Microbiology.

The paper’s lead author, Michael T. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, touched off a small furor and was condemned by some experts last Sept. 11 when he raised the same possibility in an op-ed piece in the New York Times as concern over the spread of the deadly disease was increasing rapidly.

Less than a month later, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian infected with Ebola in his home country, died in a Dallas hospital, but not before two nurses who treated him became infected, sparking fears about how prepared U.S. hospitals were to handle the disease. Public health authorities reassured Americans they were in no danger of contracting the hemorrhagic disease from casual contact with others. Ebola is transmitted by contact with infected body fluids — mainly blood, feces and vomit — experts around the world have said. This is why health care workers and people who had contact with victims were most likely to become infected in the current epidemic, they said.

“There was almost a rush to ensure the public that we knew a lot more than we did,” Osterholm said on Wednesday. “But we’re saying you can’t rule out respiratory transmission.”

Not only was there a rush by public health officials to calm frayed nerves surrounding the Ebola crisis, there was a rush by the administration’s allies in the media to shame and condemn those who were actually listening to the researchers that contradicted administration officials.

In PolitiFact’s defense, Will also insisted that scientists believed that it was not necessary “to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone.” That’s not accurate, but does this really merit his inclusion on a list of 2014’s most incautious liars?

If this episode feels all too familiar, it should. PolitiFact chose as its Lie of the Year in 2012 Mitt Romney’s claim in a political advertisement that Chrysler was moving some of its Jeep manufacturing operations to China.

“The Romney campaign was crafty with its word choice, so campaign aides could claim to be speaking the literal truth, but the ad left a false impression that all Jeep production was being moved to China,” PolitiFact conceded just a month after dubbing Romney’s add 2012’s LOTY.

“PolitiFact’s interpretation is directly contravened by the fact the campaign explicitly spelled out the precise nature of their issue with Jeep, which happens to dovetail nicely with what the campaign ad did, in fact, say,” The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway noted. “They said it was objectionable that Jeep wasn’t prioritizing job creation in the U.S.—not that they were accusing Jeep of supplanting American jobs with jobs in China. Those are two very different things.”

PolitiFact may disagree with Romney’s ad, but they have no real basis to say it’s deliberately deceptive — let alone “Lie of the Year.” Tellingly, after conceding Romney’s ad was the “literal truth,” PolitiFact’s response doesn’t address any of my substantive criticisms, largely restates what they’ve previously written on the topic, and asserts that they’re justified in sticking with their claim Romney was deliberately deceptive only by citing other fact checkers who—surprise!—came to similar conclusions.

Well, at least this time their Lie of the Year held up for a whole two months. Some might call that progress.

Update: Via Ace, there might be some contextual problems regarding Will’s claim that it is not necessary “to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone.” I understood this to mean that it is not necessary to come into contact with human fluids in order to contract Ebola, but Will may have meant that direct bodily contact is not necessary in order to contract the disease. If the latter interpretation is correct, mine is not and PolitiFact would be entirely incorrect in this case.

It turns out Will was ahead of the curve on this way back in October: