Today Politifact Editor Bill Adair probably ruined his outlet's chances of ever being taken seriously again as an objective debunker of political spin. What a shame. There's a glaring need for somebody to play that role, and Politifact was in a unique position to fill it. Its parent newspaper is owned by a foundation, which should relieve them of some of the pressures that for-profit publishers place on editors.
Unfortunately, Bill Adair has made it impossible for Politifact to fill that role by committing a series of errors in judgment that culminated with today's intemperate rant.
There are good and bad ways to respond when a media outlet's criticized harshly. Today Adair chose the worst way - arrogance, distortion, and ad hominem attacks. There's very little chance Politifact will ever regain its credibility.
Many people, including me, were highly critical of what we felt was Politifact's egregious mischaracterizations of the Republicans' Medicare plan back in May. A number of us responded to Politifact's argument that Democrats were wrong to claim that the Ryan plan passed by the house would not "end Medicare as we know it." We believed then, and continue to believe, that it would.
Politifact's response at the time could best be characterized as disdainful indifference. That was a mistake, and it led to an escalation of the rhetoric that apparently bruised Adair's feelings and his ego.
The Politifact team failed to understand that credibility is essential to its mission. A "fact checking" project is only useful if people believe that it is both unbiased and intelligent in its assessments. You don't have to agree with your critics, nor do you have to enjoy being the recipient of heated criticism. (Who does?) But you do have to engage your critics and their arguments if you are to remain credible.
Poltifact didn't just ignore the criticisms it received last May. It then upped the ante this week by naming the Medicare issue "The Lie of the Year." It should have expected the firestorm of criticism that followed.
How Politifact could have responded effectively
The best way to respond to criticism is to review your critics' charges, consider them, and - if you still disagree - rebut them point by point. You accomplish several things that way:
1) You show respect for your critics.
2) You affirm your own objectivity. (A journalist needs to remain objective, even when being criticized.)
3) You let your readers know you have understood these criticisms and considered them carefully.
4) You demonstrate a willingness to correct yourself if you have erred.
5) Even if you don't change your position, you can now defend it with some credibility.
Adair and Politifact should have responded this way in May, or at the very least this week.
The Low Road
What a shame that Adair took the low road instead. His response is called "Fact-Checking in the Echo Chamber Nation," and it leads off with a contemptuous dismissal of both left and right -- the right for listening to Rush and Fox, and the left for "the Huffington Post, Rachel Maddow, and DailyKos."
"To make sure they get a balanced view," Adair sneers, "they click Facebook links -- from their liberal friends."
The false equivalence of Adair's left/right language is exactly what he's being attacked for on the Medicare issue. By opening with it, he's affirming the criticism that Politifact values equivalence over facts. His dismissal of "left" and "right" reveals his own true bias for what he describes as a "balanced view," one that includes both liberal and conservative viewpoints.
That comeback highlights the fatal flaw behind Politifact and Adair's approach to reporting. "Left" and "right" don't matter in journalism. The view that Adair and every journalist should strive for is the accurate view, not a "balanced" one - regardless of the political viewpoint that the facts reinforce.
With this misguided opening, Adair has already wounded the credibility of Politifact "as we know it."
A Good Response
I don't agree with Adair and Politifact, but it's not hard to write a defense of their editorial position that would not have been self-destructive. How about this?
We have carefully considered the criticism we have received, and here's what we have concluded: In order to determine whether or not the Republicans 'voted to end Medicare,' we need to agree on what we mean by 'Medicare.' Our critics consider Medicare to be a system where the government directly insures seniors and issues payments for their medical care. The right-leaning Wall Street Journal stopped just short of embracing that position itself when it wrote that the Republican plan "would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills."
We used a different definition for Medicare, and we should have made that clear. Upon reviewing the comments of our critics, we continue to stand by our conclusion that the Republican plan would not 'end Medicare as we know it,' but would transfer it to a privately-run program under much stricter budget controls. That would result in a program that looks and feels quite different from today's Medicare, and would also lead to higher out-of-pocket costs, as our critics have asserted. But we chose to characterize Medicare a funding program for senior medical care. Since the Republican plan would still fund seniors' care, we reject the assertion that it would 'end Medicare.'
An ideal approach would be to poll the public on what they believe 'Medicare' is, but we don't have the resources to do that. Therefore the confusion is understandable, and we should have provided our definition of is meant by 'Medicare.' But we think our definition of Medicare is useful, and stand by our conclusion - with that clarification."
If Politifact has responded this way its critics would still have disagreed strongly, but the matter would have been closed on a civil note that allowed its critics to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Sarcasm and Safety in Numbers
But Adair chose not to respond to the substance of the criticisms at all. Instead he opened with an arrogant, Bill Keller-esque swipe at 'Echo Chamber Nation' that included an attempt at biting sarcasm - 'for balance, they listen to their friends' - a style of response which was inappropriate for the situation and for which he has no apparent gifts.
Adair also took a 'safety in numbers' approach by noting that competitors "FactCheck.org" and the Washington Post's "FactChecker" agreed with Politifact on Medicare. But both of those organizations have been criticized for the same error as Politifact's - the pursuit of false "balance" between left and right rather than of the truth - so this is a failed gambit.
End of the Fack-Checkers?
I disagreed with Ezra Klein when he wrote that "the 'fact checker' model is probably unsustainable. " It doesn't have to be. Even though I mostly write advocacy pieces rather than reporting, I haven't found it difficult to criticize politicians in both parties. All it requires is the fortitude to read some nasty things about yourself online, and the willingness to accept the occasional Facebook de-friending or hostile confrontation at a holiday party. Comes with the territory, as they say.
Political fact-checking can play an extremely useful role - if the fact checkers can hang on to their credibility. Their lack of a policy or political agenda allows them to convince readers who would not be convinced by people like me. But after reading Adair, I've concluded that Ezra Klein is probably right. There's probably no way to sustain that model as long as editors strive for 'balance' rather than accuracy.
And that seems to be what they're all doing at the major media outlets.
The damage that Adair has done to Politifact's credibility will be lethal in many quarters. It has done some excellent work, so that's a real pity.
It's hard to understand why Adair chose such an injudicious response - pique? Poor self control? It's hard to imagine that he thought a piece like this would be in the best interests of his organization, but if he did he was sadly mistaken.
Adair takes a few more ineffectual ad hominem swings at his critics before closing on a note of grandiosity. "PolitiFact is dangerous," he boasts. "We have disrupted the status quo because we're doing what journalists should have been doing for a long time -- holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words."
That's a noble objective for journalists. People like Bill Adair should make it their life's work to hold powerful and influential people "accountable for their words." But he can't do it if he refuses to be accountable for his own.