Big news from the war on fact checking today, folks. About a week ago, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) launched an attack ad against Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who has declared himself a candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Carl Levin (D-Mich.). In that ad, Peters is assailed by Julie Boonstra, whose insurance plan was canceled because of Obamacare. Boonstra, a cancer patient, says in the ad that as a result of her plan's cancellation, her "out-of-pocket costs are so high, it’s unaffordable." She continues, like so:
I believed the president. I believed I could keep my health insurance plan. I feel lied to. It’s heartbreaking for me. Congressman Peters, your decision to vote for Obamacare jeopardized my health.
Scoop, if true. Enter The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler (and HuffPost's Ashley Woods), who did the fact-checking spadework and discovered that the ad's claims didn't add up. Peters, as you might expect, cried foul and complained to the television stations airing the ad. Further documentation was provided by AFP, but, as it turns out, that documentation "doesn’t actually back up the ad’s key claim."
And that's all in a day's work on the fact-checking beat, with the good news for AFP being that the information conveyed by the fact-checkers will inevitably fail to be as widely broadcast as the original ad itself. But the Washington Examiner, for some reason, believes that fact-checking the ad was out of bounds: "Their first priority should be fact-checking politicians, not private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights."
By the Examiner's reckoning, it took way too long for fact-checkers to lambaste President Barack Obama for his "If you like your plan, you can keep it." As the Examiner editorial notes, "The Washington Post's 'Fact Checker' blog, for example, didn't award four Pinocchios to Obama's claim until Oct. 30[, 2013] -- more than three years after the law was signed, and only after people were getting cancellation letters." That's a fair point -- though it should be added that the veracity of Obama's claim was impugned well before 2013. Here, for example, is a September 2010 article by The Hill's Julian Pecquet, reporting that by the Department of Health and Human Services' own estimates, many plans were going to lose their "grandfathered" status between 2010 and 2013.
But what's the solution here? Wait three months to fact-check a political ad, for the sake of consistency? The Examiner notes that fact-checkers went to work on the "if you like your plan" claim "after people were getting cancellation letters." That's a clue as to how this fact-checking industry is going to work -- a precipitating event is going to drive their activity. In the case of the president's claims, it was cancellation letters, which laid bare the reality behind the White House's glib spin job. In the case of Boonstra's claims, it was when she showed up in an attack ad. And I'm afraid to say, the First Amendment doesn't protect people from having their speech scrutinized -- whether it comes in a campaign ad or not.
Not that the Examiner is anti-scrutiny! "No one is arguing in favor of misleading political ads," they write. "But what's important here are the facts no one disputes: Boonstra's health insurance was canceled due to federal regulations, she was forced to restructure her care while suffering from a deadly disease and Peters did vote for Obamacare."
It reminds one of an ad that ran in the 2012 campaign cycle, from Obama-supporting super PAC Priorities USA Action:
Here are some facts that no one disputes: Joe Soptic worked at a steel plant, Bain Capital invested in the company that ran this plant, the plant was closed, Soptic lost his job, his wife died of cancer. But the claim that Mitt Romney was somehow culpable in Soptic's wife's death was a grotesque lie. Glenn Kessler said of this ad, "On just every level, this ad stretches the bounds of common sense and decency." That is 100 percent correct. And at the time, the Washington Examiner could not agree more, never mind Soptic's First Amendment rights.
But there are new standards, according to AFP's director of public affairs and the group's ideological allies:
So, officially, AFP and the Washington Examiner now tacitly approve of Priorities USA Action's ad with Joe Soptic.
That's not what I'd recommend! Rather, my advice to Americans for Prosperity is that if they want to create an attack ad around an Obamacare victim, they should go out and find one whose claims actually authentically fit the bill. Look for people whose premiums have increased or the ones who actually had to break the continuity of their care by shopping around for a new doctor. Then they'll get themselves a "true" rating from the fact-checkers to celebrate.
By the way, if you're interested in what the American Cancer Society thinks about Obamacare, well, they are for it. And if you find the implications of the new law "confusing" or "overwhelming," they have "a staff of trained experts available to answer questions, free of charge," through a 24-hour hotline. They promise to keep it politics-free, which, for cancer patients, is probably a pretty good prescription.
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