PolitiFact finds its pants on fire

PolitiFact finds its pants on fire
PolitiFact finds its pants on fire

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) appeared on Fox News on Sunday, and when the discussion turned to a possible self-imposed budget crisis, the Virginia Republican said lawmakers should be “focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit.”

What Cantor said was the opposite of the truth – he said the nation has a “growing deficit,” when in reality, we have a shrinking deficit. We can have a discussion about whether the House Majority Leader was deliberately trying to deceive the public – Republicans have an incentive to convince the public that U.S. finances are in worse shape than they really are – or whether Cantor simply doesn’t know the basics of current events. But I’m afraid it’s either one or the other.

Unless, that is, you’re PolitiFact.

As regular readers know, I have, from time to time, taken issue with the fact-checking website’s work, but this Cantor example should be an easy one. Cantor said the deficit is growing; the deficit is shrinking; so even PolitiFact can’t ignore the straightforward arithmetic.

Or so I thought. My colleague Will Femia found this report last night.

Cantor said that the federal deficit is “growing.” Annual federal deficits are not growing right now, and they are not projected to grow through 2015, a point at which the deficit will have shrunk by three-quarters since 2009. By this standard, Cantor is wrong. However, unless policies are changed, deficits are projected to grow again in 2016 and beyond, according to the CBO. On balance, we rate his claim Half True.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I would have hoped for a “Pants on Fire” rating, but would have settled for at least a “False” conclusion.

But the House Majority Leader can make a claim that’s the polar opposite of reality and it’s “half true”? Seriously?

Imagine your home town has experienced a heat wave, which then faded, and I told you, “You know, it’s actually getting hotter,” despite the fact that it’s getting cooler. By PolitiFact’s reasoning, my claim may be the opposite of the truth, but it’s still “half true” because at some point in the future, it’s likely to get hotter again.

Imagine we’re driving down the highway in a car and I step on the accelerator. I then assure you, “Don’t worry, the car is slowing down,” despite the fact that the car is speeding up. PolitiFact would apparently say my claim is “half true” because sometime soon, the car will probably decelerate.

In theory, I’m not reflexively opposed to the idea of websites fact-checking important claims made by political figures, but if you’re going to have the word “fact” in your name, you have a responsibility to get the details right. And too often, PolitiFact just isn’t good at its job.

But even by its standards, this is a doozy. Cantor said the deficit is growing; PolitiFact knows that the deficit is shrinking; but it nevertheless tells the public that the claim is “half true” because in future years, if certain budget conditions happen a certain way, Cantor’s claim might someday become true.

I suppose my follow-up question for PolitiFact is this: what incentive do political leaders have to tell the truth when you tell the public their patently false claims are “half true”?