Back in the 1930s, famed aviator Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigon earned headlines and that nickname when, on a supposedly planned flight from New York to California, he wound up in Ireland. But it's not at all clear Corrigon actually went the wrong way by accident. Neither do an increasing number of modern-day politicians, who lie and misrepresent the facts intentionally, because it often works.
Politifact, our real-life, would-be version of novelist Frank Herbert's "truthsayers," seems to understand that politicians often game the debate, but seems to not to understand how its measuring process ends up serving that game.
Politifact is the national, newspaper-based outfit with a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel branch that tries to rate the statements of politicians and other public figures based on factual truth. Unfortunately, the rating system is simplistic and there's often a whole lot of parsing going on. And a whole lot of scheming by politicians to say something outrageous yet appear (even to Politifact) not so disingenuous. It's like the little kid in "Family Circus" who makes huge loops through neighborhoods and backyards on what could be a short, straight line home, and lies to mom about it.
Today, the Journal Sentinel ran a national Politifact item on Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor was talking (disparagingly, of course) to Fox News about the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare" as he and Fox call it, and said this, according to the Politifact headline:
Walker: Study says health law will raise premiums in Wisconsin exchanges 82 percent
It's interesting that Walker's comments came even as his commissioner of insurance was busy telling everyone that, just wait, when the federally created (because Walker refused to be involved) health insurance exchanges open Oct. 1 in Wisconsin, rates will be way up. The commissioner's office didn't bother to share with reporters the actual rates in dollars and cents that participating insurers already have submitted, but hey, small detail.
Anyway, back to Walker, who surely seemed in chorus with his supposedly apolitical insurance commissioner (sounds like a campaign, doesn't it?). The Politifact column examined his statement and found that:
1. Walker was dead wrong asserting premiums will go up. He was citing a study that said no such thing; actually, it said CLAIMS on insurance would go up, for some unknown number among the relatively small (three percent or so) of state residents who are actually expected to get coverage through the exchanges.
[Indeed, the way Walker said it, a viewer might have been confused into thinking everyone in the state would see premiums going up 80 percent; indeed, in several large states where the state insurance officers actually did release the underlying rate proposals, insurance exchange offerings actually will DECLINE from current levels. Gee, go figure.]
2. Walker got the number wrong. It's 80 percent, not 82. Adding that to the above error, we see that the study suggests 80 percent more claims, not 82 percent higher premiums. Wrong twice, in other words.
[And by the way, it shouldn't worry anyone that claims might go up that much, seeing as how many, many more Americans will have private insurance coverage thanks to conditions in the Affordable Care Act. You can't make an insurance claim if you don't have insurance.]
3. Walker ignored the fact that many applicants for health coverage going through the exchanges probably will qualify for the federal subsidies that the Affordable Care Act mandates, lowering their premiums. They might go down or they might go up, but they probably won't go up 82 percent, even if that were what the study actually found, which it didn't. So, three wrongs for Wrong-Way Walker.
Wow, that was easy to sift out, if you studied all the facts at hand. But then, Politifact made it's "Truth-O-Meter" ruling: Walker might be totally wrong on the basic facts, but Politifact gave his statement a "half true" because Walker was, um, well, ah, CLOSE, you see.
Oddly, while intentionally simplistic dudes like Walker are sometimes marked up from "false" to "half true" in Politifact analysis because they got some little detail right, in sidelong fashion, other rather more nuanced and informed politicians (see my item from Monday on Sen. Vinehout, for example) get graded down from "true" to "half true" because they didn't cover each and every possible contingency, or got something however small not quite right in their bevy of fact-giving.
Giving a long, richly informative lecture versus showing off your political coloring book are tasks of different difficulty, yet Politifact treats them more or less equally, because it tends to rate simple declarative sentences in both cases, and sometimes out of context.
Now, it is true that in Politifact, Walker happens to get a lot of false ratings, but in a system where the metering was applied more consistently, he'd either get even more such ratings or people like Vinehout would get fewer. Part of the problem is that Politifact, like many other media institutions, strives to appear balanced, even when, these days, reality and fact have, as someone once said, a definite liberal bias.
I'm ready to suggest to the Politifact folks that they lose their cute "Truth-O-Meter" and its variants and just stick to providing context and background, which the Politifact entries often do well, only to have solid reporting up-ended by a far more noticable, far more simplistic graphic "meter" that doesn't often tell us very much at all. And that's the Politifact, Jack.
Read the Walker Politifact entry and judge for yourself. BONUS: Read the Wisconsin State Journal's same-day news story on how the Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner's Office fuzzed things up for fun and political profit, They're both in the links below.