Bad Fact-Checking is Worse than None

Politifact’s Lie of the Year and the Bangor Daily News on taxpayers and welfare

Assessing political claims is a good thing — if done right.

Too often ads and speeches and talking points mislead, whether inadvertently or by design.

But if the fact-checkers do it wrong, they end up spreading misinformation.

Perhaps the most egregious example this year is Politifact’s Lie of the Year

Politifact claims it’s a lie that Republicans, particularly under the Ryan plan, “want to end Medicare.”

As Steve Benen explains:

Medicare is a single-payer health care system offering guaranteed benefits to seniors. The House Republican budget plan intended to privatize the existing system and replace it with something very different — a voucher scheme. It would still be called “Medicare,” but it wouldn’t be Medicare.

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word “end,” but if there’s a program, and it’s replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That’s what the verb means.

Absolutely. The Ryan plan changes one sort of health care plan — Medicare — into something really different, fundamentally unlike Medicare. The fact that it would happen some years down the road is just a matter of timing.

And then there’s my local paper, the Bangor Daily News

The paper published a report that Governor Paul LePage was right in stating that Maine has more people receiving “welfare services” than paying taxes.

But that conclusion is based on, to put it charitably, odd definitional choices.

They reach this conclusion by, first, ignoring the fact that Maine taxpayers in the bottom 20% of income pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes. Second, they only consider people who pay state income taxes, which were dropped to encourage work over welfare.

And the article lumps all sorts of things into the “welfare” category.  The normal use of the word involves income support that is not tied to recent unemployment or a permanent disability. 

By conflating all sorts of programs, many of which assist low-wage working people who are also taxpayers, the numbers get far, far off and clearly mischaracterize the number of welfare recipients.

How far off?

Well, in the second paragraph of the article, the article notes that the Governor put the number of welfare recipients at 453,194.

In the 24th paragraph, one finds that “28,213 Maine households accepted public assistance in 2010, defined by the survey as either TANF or general assistance.”

If you do the math, you find that 28,213 is 6% of 453,194.

So, using the Bangor Daily News’s own numbers, one can see they have massively overstated the numbers of people “on welfare.”

A reader could figure this out, but it takes work.

The BDN chose to present the “facts” according to the definitions of income and welfare Governor LePage most wished to use — not the commonly used understandings of “taxes” and “welfare.”

If the BDN wanted to use those unusual definitions of “taxes” and “welfare”, a  better fact-check would have at least broken down the numbers several ways, perhaps in a graphic like a box. This would work better than the “LePage said-Democrats said” structure of the article.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.