Politifact and Me

by Kevin D. Williamson
Intellectual dishonesty among the 'fact-checkers'

Politifact, which is published under the flag of the Tampa Bay Times, the chief executive of which, Paul Tash, is the chairman of the Poynter Institute, a member of the Pulitzer prize committee, and a disgrace to his trade, recently decided to “fact-check” my colleague Jonah Goldberg, but it was really fact-checking me, as Jonah was citing a claim in a column of mine.

The claim is a straightforward one: That under the so-called Affordable Care Act, the federal government will recognize and subsidize a great deal of hokum, things like naturopathic medicine and acupuncture that have no scientific basis, that have been clinically shown to be useless or worse, and that are rooted in rank mysticism, from the “qi” energy that acupuncturists claim to manipulate—and which does not, technically speaking, exist—to the “innate intelligence” underpinning chiropractic theory—which does not, in fact, exist, either. As endless peer-reviewed scientific studies document, this stuff is pure quackery, but it is, thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the focused exertions of former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin—one of those Democrats who really love science we’re always hearing about—it is hokum with increasing official status. Senator Harkin successfully campaigned for ACA provisions that would forbid “discrimination” against any practitioner of purported healing arts who is licensed. Many states, California prominent among them (quelle surprise!) license practitioners of superstitious hokum, including naturopathic “doctors” and acupuncturists. There are many reasons for this: One is that superstitious hokum is extraordinarily popular, and the state desires to keep an eye on its practitioners; a second is that California is, as advertised, full of lunatics and the entrepreneurs who service their lunacy; the third is that reasons Nos. 1 and 2 combine to generate revenue for the state, which will—in what must be the most perfect example of progressivism in practice—yank your license to practice medically null but voguish Eastern mysticism in the state of California for failure to pay your crushing California taxes. I once encountered a Whole Foods with a yoga studio inside it, and thought that if one could only get Chris Hayes to broadcast from there (there’s still time, Chris!) it would have constituted a turducken of lifestyle liberalism upon which there would be no improving, but losing your California acupuncturist’s license to the Sacramento taxman surely surpasses that.

If you are wondering where the fact-checking comes in for all of that, you’re going to keep wondering. Politifact doubly embarrassed itself on the issue, first with the risibly sloppy and shockingly (if you don’t know very many reporters) lazy reporting habits of Louis Jacobson, who wrote that neither Jonah nor I had “returned inquiries,” by which he means to say responded to them. He tried to contact Jonah by sending a single email to a rarely used public account, and me he tried to contact—if you can call it that—by tweeting that he was fact-checking something. I do not follow him on Twitter, having been contentedly unaware of his existence, and I do not follow Politifact, for that matter. I am not sure that what Jacobson did constituted an “inquiry” at all, but I am sure that it does not constitute “inquiries.” When I pointed this out—and noted that National Review is in the telephone directory and has been since the Eisenhower administration, that we employ an energetic young man to answer the telephones, that my email address is obtainable from the web site, that National Review retains the services of various publicists and whatnot for the purpose of connecting its writers with media figures, etc.—“pick up the goddamned telephone,” in short—Jacobson responded in an odd way: by sending the same email again to Jonah the next morning, long after the piece had been published. His editor, the feckless, gormless, and in any intelligent world unemployable Angie Holan, noting the general mockery and merriment that my complaints about Politifact’s practices produced on Twitter and elsewhere, very quickly found a way to get in touch with me—turns out that it’s not that hard!—and asked for a telephone conversation, which I declined, having nothing to say to the intellectually dishonest, the cretinous, or the servile, except in those cases in which I am matched with such on cable-news panels. (Hello, Sally.)

Politifact later apologized for Jacobson’s reportorial slobbery—though not for the fact that he lied about it; “inquiries,” indeed—but stood by its rating of the piece in question: “half true.”

Why half? That, the second part of Politifact’s self-beclownment, remains a mystery. Politifact concedes the actual facts of the case—“stipulates that as long as an alternative-medicine practitioner is fully licensed by a state, insurance companies must reimburse them just as they do medical doctors,” etc.—but goes on to add that not much money is going to the cause of advancing pseudoscientific hokum, that bureaucratic “guidance” is not as enthusiastic as some practitioners of these allegedly healing arts would like, that some aspects of the law amount mainly to “symbolism,” (which is not, as Jonah points out in his own response, actually true) etc. Which is to say, it disputes claims that neither Jonah nor I made: Neither of us wrote or implied that a main purpose or a major spending priority of the ACA involved homeopathy. This is one of those “context” things that people who do not wish to admit the truth like to talk about. The point is that you could be sure that if similar concessions were made to pseudoscientific hokum less popular among Democrats–intelligent design, for example, or various kinds of gay-conversion therapies–the response would be loud, long, and heavy on the theme of Republicans’ hating and distrusting science. When a nobody Republican state legislator in Idaho says something stupid about female anatomy, it’s national news and an indicator of the Republicans’ corporate disregard for science. Democrats actually write recognition of and subsidies for unscientific mysticism into a law–the most important law they have passed this century–and the news media have approximately squat to say about it. 

So of course Politifact ignored the actual context of the piece in question: demands that Scott Walker answer questions about his opinions on evolution. My point—which I have made repeatedly—is that progressives mainly like to talk about science when it can be used as a cudgel for their moral program (regarding homosexuality, for example) or when it can be used to annoy or embarrass conservative Christians, some of whom have boobish attitudes about evolution. Notably, Politifact omitted all consideration of the most important part of my criticism: that the things we will be recognizing and subsidizing have zero basis in science. Subsidies for homeopathy would be an entirely different question if homeopathy were not bogus. But it is. This, the most important aspect of the question, Politifact ignores, instead choosing to focus on ACA marginalia that neither Jonah nor I even addressed. This is a variation on the classical straw-man argument: There is no question about the facts that I presented, but holes can be punched in other arguments—never mind that I did not make those arguments.

Again, I point out that this goes on under the flag of the Tampa Bay Times, a highly regarded newspaper. Having spent most of my adult life editing newspapers, I care about them, even the ones to which I have no direct connection. What is going on under the watch of Paul Tash and Angie Holan is intellectual dishonesty. It is obvious intellectual dishonesty. It is undeniable intellectual dishonesty. All intelligent people recognize this. That intellectual dishonesty undermines the credibility not only of Paul Tash’s mentally flaccid operation but of newspapers categorically, which is one of the reasons I object so strongly to it. (I will be giving a speech on intellectual dishonesty in a few weeks at Hillsdale, where I am teaching a seminar in which I will instruct students how not to be embarrassing buffoons such as Louis Jacobson, Angie Holan, the editors of Rolling Stone, et al.) Newspapers have very little capital other than their reputations—a press, a building, and a distribution network can become worthless with shocking speed in the absence of institutional credibility.

One way to ruin a newspaper’s reputation is to make the news subservient to politics, which is what has happened at Politifact. The Obama administration is dear to Democrats, and the ACA, being threatened from several directions at once, is something that Democrats and so-called liberals feel the need to defend. Politifact, and by extension the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute (which owns the newspaper), is deploying rank and obvious intellectual dishonesty in the service of narrow, partisan political sympathies. It is detestable, and it deserves to be condemned by all those who care about newspapers—not only by the conservatives against whom its intellectual dishonesty is directed.

For the record, I made no attempt at all to contact Paul Tash, Angie Holan, or Louis Jacobson before writing this. I cannot imagine that any one of them has anything of any interest to add on this or any subject, and my capacity for enduring lies and stupidity is not unlimited.

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