How Republicans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love PolitiFact

The GOP used to hate the fact-checker. Now they’re making trophies in its honor.

Republican National Committee staffers deliver a "Lie of the Year" trophy to the office of Sen. Jeff Merkely, D-Ore.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Dec. 19, 2013, midnight

How quickly they for­get.

Re­pub­lic­ans have a new weapon in their ar­sen­al against Obama­care after Poli­ti­Fact awar­ded Barack Obama its ig­noble “Lie of the Year” for his bogus claim that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

Armed with the im­prim­at­ur of the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning out­fit, Re­pub­lic­ans have taken to the Sen­ate floor bran­dish­ing gi­ant Poli­ti­Fact posters. Fox News has touted the award as proof of Obama’s in­her­ent men­dacity. And the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is even de­liv­er­ing tiny trophies (made in China) to a dozen Demo­crat­ic law­makers’ Cap­it­ol Hill of­fices to con­grat­u­late them on the un-pres­ti­gi­ous win. It’s “no small fib,” the RNC said, and it’s “doubt­ful Obama­care would have passed without that lie.”

You’d ex­pect noth­ing less, of course. In polit­ics, if your op­pon­ent gets called out for blatantly ly­ing by a re­spec­ted fact-check­er, you want the world to know about it.

But it’s more than a bit iron­ic to see con­ser­vat­ives tout­ing Poli­ti­Fact as a trus­ted ar­bit­er of truth con­sid­er­ing they’ve spent the past four years try­ing to dis­cred­it the site as un­trust­worthy and biased, in­vest­ig­ated its re­port­ers and ed­it­ors, and more of­ten than not found their own “pants on fire.”

In 2009 and 2010, it was the GOP who earned the “Lie of the Year” prize for claims re­lated to Obama­care — “Death pan­els” and “a gov­ern­ment takeover of health care” — and last year, Mitt Rom­ney earned the dis­hon­or for an ad about the auto in­dustry.

For that and oth­er crimes — a study based on Poli­ti­Fact data sug­ges­ted that Re­pub­lic­ans lie three times more of­ten than Demo­crats — con­ser­vat­ives de­clared war on the site.

The Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an Party com­piled an 86-page op­pos­i­tion re­search file last year on the Rich­mond-based state af­fil­i­ate, call­ing the Vir­gin­ia Poli­ti­Fact “biased” and “lack­ing in ob­jectiv­ity.” Fol­low­ing their lead, na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans began “dis­patch­ing truth squads na­tion­wide to ques­tion ‘rul­ings’ from oth­er state Poli­ti­Facts units and dig in­to the polit­ic­al lean­ings of re­port­ers,” as The Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner re­por­ted. This ef­fort in­clud­ing dig­ging up “the party re­gis­tra­tion of re­port­ers or ed­it­ors” and “look­ing over the Face­book and Twit­ter ac­counts of the re­port­ers and ed­it­ors for hint of bi­as.”

“We’re not go­ing to let our cam­paign be dic­tated by fact-check­ers,” Mitt Rom­ney’s poll­ster said after the cam­paign got caught bend­ing the truth on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions.

When Poli­ti­Fact rated a par­tic­u­lar Rom­ney claim as false, his policy dir­ect­or emailed the site’s ed­it­ors to say they had an “em­bar­rass­ing bi­as and lack of journ­al­ist­ic stand­ards,” and that “your ana­lys­is in this in­stance was so in­ad­equate that the piece ended up be­ing little more than Obama for Amer­ica spin.” Breit­bart.com’s cov­er­age of the ex­change car­ried the tri­umphant head­line: “Rom­ney Puts Poli­ti­Fact on the Ropes,” with a pic­ture of Rom­ney pos­ing as a strong man with his fists above his head.

It’s part of a lar­ger, deeply in­grained con­ser­vat­ive nar­rat­ive that dis­trusts the main­stream me­dia as a hope­lessly biased or­gan of the Left. The right-lean­ing Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter puts up bill­boards, hands out bump­er stick­ers, and even flies planes trail­ing gi­ant ban­ners that read “Don’t be­lieve the lib­er­al me­dia.” By “lib­er­al me­dia,” they don’t mean The Na­tion and MS­N­BC, they mean ABC, CNN, The New York Times, etc.

Poli­ti­Fact is not that hon­est fact-check­er,” Jon Cas­sidy ex­plained in a lengthy take­down of Poli­ti­Fact in the con­ser­vat­ive web­site Town­Hall, writ­ten dur­ing the height of the 2012 cam­paign.

But Mark Hem­ing­way in 2011 pub­lished the defin­it­ive con­ser­vat­ive take on fact check­ers in the Weekly Stand­ard. His 3,500 word es­say, “Lies, Damned Lies and Fact Check­ing,” promp­ted praise on the right and in­tro­spect­ive de­bate in the main­stream press. A sample:

If the stated goal seems simple enough”‹ — “‹provid­ing an im­par­tial ref­er­ee to help read­ers sort out ac­ri­mo­ni­ous and hy­per­bol­ic polit­ic­al dis­putes”‹ — “‹in prac­tice Poli­ti­Fact does noth­ing of the sort.

Today, however, Re­pub­lic­ans sud­denly find Poli­ti­Fact‘s rat­ings cred­ible and worthy of us­ing as a cudgel against Demo­crats. Is Poli­ti­Fact still in the tank for Obama if it calls him the year’s biggest li­ar? And if it’s so dis­hon­est, can we trust them when they say the pres­id­ent bent the truth?

This kind of badger­ing of the refs is hardly unique to right. Lib­er­als have ex­ploded at Poli­ti­Fact when its rul­ings don’t go their way plenty of times. Rachel Mad­dow once dir­ec­ted a mono­logue at the site, a fre­quent foil of the MS­N­BC host’s, where she de­clared: “You are truly ter­rible … [you] just make this stuff up.”

For Angie Holan, ed­it­or of the na­tion­al site, which is based at the Tampa Bay Times, the bi­par­tis­an cri­ti­cism is evid­ence that they’re do­ing something right. “Most of us are base­ball fans at Poli­ti­Fact, and we’ve no­ticed that factcheck­ers are kind of like um­pires. Every­body loves — and hates — the umps at one point or an­oth­er,” she said in an email.

But while the Left has pro­tested cer­tain rul­ings, it hasn’t en­gaged in the same kind of whole­sale cam­paign to dis­cred­it fact check­ers like the Right has. It doesn’t have the same in­her­ent dis­trust of the me­dia.

Will con­ser­vat­ives change their view of Poli­ti­Fact now that its sided with them? If past is pre­ced­ent, the good will only last un­til the next neg­at­ive rul­ing against your side.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misatrib­uted a quote from Mitt Rom­ney’s poll­ster to the former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate him­self. It has been up­dated.

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