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Sorting out the truth in politics

How chose the Lie of the Year

For the first time since PolitiFact started naming a Lie of the Year, readers and editors have made different choices for the top falsehood.

PolitiFact editors chose the Democratic line that Republicans voted "to end Medicare" as the 2011 Lie of the Year, while the winner in our reader poll was the Republican claim that "zero jobs" were created by the economic stimulus. (The Medicare claim was No. 3 in the readers' poll.)

We define the Lie of the Year as the most significant falsehood, the one that had the most impact on the political discourse. In 2010, we chose the claim made by many Republicans that the health care overhaul was "a government takeover." In 2009, we chose Sarah Palin's often-repeated claim that the health care plan included "death panels."

Both were easily the top choices for PolitiFact editors and our readers. This year, the choice was not as clear.

We started with 10 finalists ranging from Michele Bachmann's statement that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation to Barack Obama's claim that his review of federal regulations was "unprecedented." We examined each one to see if it could be considered the most significant falsehood.

We faced a new wrinkle this year: campaigning from both sides.

After we named the finalists two weeks ago, many liberal bloggers wrote that the Medicare claim should not be on our list because it was not wrong ("PolitiFact 2011 Lie of the Year finalist … is true," said a headline in Daily Kos). Some bloggers encouraged their readers to vote, which undoubtedly boosted balloting. A few people wrote in a vote for our own fact-check of the claim to be Lie of the Year.

On the other side, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who authored the Medicare plan, emailed his supporters and posted a video on YouTube urging people to vote for the Medicare claim as the Lie of the Year.

We received 9,214 votes, nearly triple the number from 2010. The full results are below.

The "Zero jobs" claim, which won the readers' poll with 24 percent of the vote, had been a popular Republican talking point that was uttered by everyone from Rick Perry to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But we concluded it was more a falsehood from last year, when there was more debate about the stimulus, than this year. Indeed, our first fact-check of that claim was in February 2010 ­– nearly two years ago.

The No. 2 choice for readers was Sen. Jon Kyl's claim that abortion services are "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." This statement became famous because of a follow-up statement from Kyl's spokesman that the claim "was not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions."

The "not intended to be a factual statement" part was ridiculed by critics and comedian Stephen Colbert, who began tweeting false statements such as "Jon Kyl calls the underside of his Senate seat: 'The Booger Graveyard.' " Colbert said it was okay because he included the hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.

We, too, got a kick out of Kyl's explanation, but we don't think the abortion claim was repeated enough to be the most significant.

Likewise, Perry's claim that scientists are "questioning the original idea" that climate change is caused by human activity has not been a major issue in the presidential campaign and was not a strong contender.

We reached the same conclusion on Bachmann's statement that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. It's an interesting falsehood, but it didn't become a significant issue because of widespread agreement Bachmann was incorrect.

Another finalist was Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama traveled the world and "apologized for America." Romney said this many times (he even titled his book No Apology), but it wasn't picked up much by other candidates and didn't reach critical mass.

We discussed each of the other finalists and concluded that while clearly false, they failed to be as significant as the Medicare claim, which ignored the fact that people 55 and older would remain on traditional Medicare and that even with the privatized system under Ryan's bill, younger people would still receive a guarantee of care.

And more than any of our other finalists, the Medicare claim had staying power. The Democrats launched it just four days after the House vote in April and then repeated it many times all year. It was the latest chapter in a long-running "Mediscare" strategy to frighten senior citizens that their benefits are in jeopardy if they support Republicans.

As we were concluding our reporting for our Lie of the Year story last week, Ryan announced that he was altering his plan and would retain an option for people to stay in traditional Medicare if they want.

His announcement of a bipartisan effort with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., changes the dynamic in the polarized debate and could increase the likelihood that Congress adopts his approach.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote that Ryan "has plausibly inoculated his party against a full-frontal Mediscare campaign. Or at least he gives Republicans a credible rebuttal to neutralize it."

But Ryan's latest tactic doesn't affect our decision on Lie of the Year. The statements made about his original plan were clearly inaccurate, they were repeated by many Democrats and they perpetuated a 60-year tactic in using false claims to scare seniors.

Readers' poll results

The economic stimulus created "zero jobs."
— The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Republicans
Abortion services are "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."
— Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
"Republicans voted to end Medicare."
— The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Democrats
Scientists are "questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. … (It is) more and more being put into question."
— Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry
The vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation.
— Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann
President Obama "went around the world and apologized for America."
— Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
"I didn't raise taxes once."
— President Barack Obama
Because of more restrictive voting laws, Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."
— Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and head of the Democratic National Committee
Other (Suggestions varied widely: "Tax cuts for the top 2% create jobs!!! NOT!," "That he OBAMA IS NOT A MARXIST WHEN HE REALLY IS!," "All of the above," "every time that Pres. Obama opens his mouth," "Tax cuts and deregulation will create jobs — All of the GOP candidates.") 2%
The Obama administration's review of obsolete regulations was "unprecedented."
— President Barack Obama
Congressional Republicans have introduced dozens of bills on social issues and other topics, but "zero on job creation."
— Facebook posts

How chose the Lie of the Year 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 7:20am]
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