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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In an important post Brian Beutler, in effect, asks "who are you and what have you done with Glenn Kessler."

I generally respect Kessler, but I think he refuses to stick to fact checking when he covers the Medicare debate. I also think he should either drop the Pinocchios or apply them consistently*.

The topic is a DSCC advertisement on Republicans and Medicare which Kessler denounced very strongly and awarded the maximum four Pinocchios.

I think that Beutler buries his main point. In a discussion with Beutler, Kessler conceded that one of the claims of fact which he marked as outrageously false is, in fact, true.

As summarized by Beutler, the advert said that " Republicans want 'to take needed health care coverage away from our seniors.'" Beutler notes that the House Budget resolution repeals most of the health care reform bill (keeping most of the Medicare cuts in the bill) and therefore repeals the closing of the Medicare plan D doughnut hole. Thus the Republicans undeniably take health care coverage away from seniors. Clearly the question of whether it is needed is a matter of opinion and firm statements on such questions are perfectly standard in political debate.

According to Beutler who is summarizing a conversation with (I think) Kessler

"The Post mostly grants this, but says it's wrong for Democrats to place so much focus on it. "In any case, it is a stretch to focus on this provision (and a couple of other issues) and then make a sweeping claim that leaves the impression that all seniors would be affected immediately. "

In other words "The Post" concedes that the claim of fact which they denounced as false is true. They argue that the truth is false, because the statement is phrased in a way which could be misinterpreted. It is clear that the phrasing was chosen to convince current Medicare recipients that they would lose more than the Medicare plan D doughnut hole. But phrasing a claim to maximize the effect is not stating a falsehood.

The Post's position is that, while the claim is technically true, that's not what really matters. In other words their fact checking is based on the principal that the truth or falsehood of claims of fact isn't fundamental.

I don't know what is happening. I think that part of what is going on is that Kessler is confusing "inflamatory" and "false." He considers the claim that Republicans voted to take health care coverage away from current recipients bad for the discussion, so it is false even if it is true. I also suspect that he strongly believes that the Medicare budget's growth should be restrained and he is allowing his views on the proper decision to affect his opinions about the accuracy of claims made in the debate.

The good news is that only a few bloggers are paying attention. It is clear that at least two fact checkers (Kessler and someone at Politifact) consider the claim that Republicans are trying to repeal and replace Medicare to be the "death panels" of 2011. It is clear that Democratic operatives don't care what fact checkers write. In this case, I think the operatives are correct on the merits, but, beyond that, I am pleased that they aren't afraid of the Washington Post.

*A large fraction of my problems with Kessler have to do with the, very striking and effective, awarding of Pinocchios. He definitely does not award them consistently. He noted in a fact check of Romney's campaign launching speech that he had awarded 4 Pinocchios to one of Romney's claims, objected to many other claims, and awarded 2 Pinocchios in the end. This just isn't fact checking. Making some true claims and some false claims must be scored as making some false claims. Fact checkers must check which claims to check -- they just can't assess which fraction of total claims of fact made by a person is accurate. Removing two Pinocchios for other claims (many of which Kessler asserted were false) is clearly inconsistent with the whole idea of fact checking and the stated definition of the Pinocchio scale.

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