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Politifact's pants are on fire on coverage of Obamacare promises

Now that President Obama’s oft-repeated claim that Obamacare lets people keep their current health insurance has been exposed as false, it’s a good time to examine Politifact’s track record on the matter.

Now that President Obama’s oft-repeated claim that Obamacare lets people keep their current health insurance has been exposed as false, it’s a good time to examine Politifact’s track record on the matter. It isn’t good.

In six separate columns addressing the Obama claim’s truthfulness between 2008 and 2012, the Tampa Bay Times’ influential fact-checking group did not once correctly label it as false.

This was despite ample evidence to the contrary — often noted in those same columns. Their harshest judgments were that his promise was “half true.” Even those rulings were grudging.

The first of these six Politifact columns ran Oct. 7, 2008, and evaluated Obama's comment, “[I]f you've got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it.” It rated this as “true” since Obama was “accurately describing his [then-proposed] health care plan.”

In other words, it was grading him on the basis of “Did he really promise this?” and not the more relevant “Is this a plausible promise?”

Politifact followed up on Aug. 11, 2009, when Obama said: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”

This time there was legislation to evaluate and Politifact conceded: “It's not realistic for Obama to make blanket statements that ‘you’ will be able to ‘keep your health care plan.’ ”

That would undermine Obama’s claim, right? Not according to Politifact, which stated: “[O]ne of the points of reform is to change the way health care works right now. So we rate Obama's statement Half True.”

That may have been “one of the points of reform” but that was not relevant to Obama's claim. Politifact was simply moving the goalposts.

The third column appeared March 23, 2012, in reaction to an op-ed by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. The fourth ran on June 28, 2012, in response to a Mitt Romney statement.

Both men had stated that up to 20 million people could lose their employer-based coverage under Obamacare.

The figure was based on a Congressional Budget Office study. Its main estimate was 3-5 million but 20 million was a possible alternate scenario.

So, both statements were true, right? Politifact instead dinged Priebus’ as “half true” for not including “important context” like those people “won’t ... be left without insurance options. They should have access to coverage on the [government] exchanges.”

In other words, it is unfair to say millions will lose their employer-based coverage because after they lose it, they’ll be able to get government coverage.

Politifact was even harsher on Romney, rating his comment “false” because the 20 million figure was “cherry picked.” It repeated the grade in a follow-up Oct. 3, 2012, column.

Granted, Priebus and Romney presented the highest estimate as the most likely one and ignored that some might voluntarily drop their insurance. But on the larger question of whether millions would lose their insurance both were indisputably right.

Politifact took another swing on June 28, 2012, the same day it was calling Romney a liar. This column reacted to Obama's statement:

“If you're one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance.”

It was his most definitive statement yet. Politifact noted: “Obama suggests that keeping the insurance you like is guaranteed.”

It nevertheless gave the president a pass because “many Americans already lose their current health plan for reasons that have nothing to do with the new law.” So, hey, what’s the big deal?

Politifact concluded: “Americans on balance benefit from the law’s provisions. We rate Obama’s claim Half True.”

I asked Politifact’s editors whether they still stood by these columns. Editor Angie Holan did not respond directly, instead emailing me a round up of their more recent columns on aspects of the Obamacare debate. I asked again and she did not respond.

Apparently, Politifact thinks accountability is something that only applies to other people.