PolitiFact Digs Its Hole Deeper

The fact-checking site was only half-right about Eric Cantor and the deficit, and it’s flat wrong about its critics.

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., left, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaks about the Boston Marathon explosions during a news conference of House Republican Leadership on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

PolitiFact.com has gotten itself in a bit of a dust-up in the last day or so regarding a "half-true" rating it gave House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after he asserted on a Sunday talk show that the U.S. budget deficit is "growing." The deficit isn't growing. In fact, it's shrinking. Progressive commentators lambasted PolitiFact.com and now the site is out with a response to the criticism, essentially accusing them of being blinded by partisanship. Not only is PolitiFact.com wrong, again, but the organization misses the point.

Here's what Cantor said on "Fox News Sunday" this past weekend, per PolitiFact (emphasis mine):

What we are trying to do is fund the government and make sure also that we take away the kinds of things that are standing in the way of a growing economy (and) a better health care, and all the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The site's review of Cantor's statement was, to borrow their phrasing, half-right. Here's the initial reaction: "There's one problem: The federal deficit isn't 'growing.' At least not now. … Cantor is wrong about what has been happening to the deficit, and what is projected to happen in the near future." True! It's not. It's shrinking. The article goes on to note that according to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit is projected to start growing again in fiscal year 2016 (and surpass the current deficit in fiscal year 2019). Also true – but only tangentially relevant to evaluating Cantor's remark.

Cantor referred to "this growing deficit," present tense. He didn't say The deficit, which is on a long-term course to growing or This deficit, which is projected to grow or anything which would qualify his remark enough to be, you know, true. Or even half-true. What he said was demonstrably false. (See: "Cantor is wrong about what has been happening to the deficit…")

Would it be appropriate for the site's write-up to note that deficits are projected to rise in the long term? Sure. But I thought it was PolitiFact's job to call balls and strikes, not rearrange the strike zone so that a pitch can be both a ball today and a strike a few years from now. The fact of the matter is that the deficit is falling, not "growing." The notion that it will start to grow again is a projection – and no doubt a well-grounded one, but not a fact. Circumstances might change. It might start growing again next year or not for 10 years. But that's all speculation.

Progressive bloggers, led by the estimable Steve Benen and including Paul Krugman, pounced on the "half" ruling, rightly blasting PolitiFact – which led to the site's response today. In short, PolitiFact says that Benen, Krugman et al. are picking ideological nits:

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Krugman's point gets to the heart of why our check made him mad: Krugman and others like him think Republican support for austerity is damaging the economy. Rather than worrying about deficits, they say we need more government spending, to get the economy going and bring down the unemployment rate.

Here at PolitiFact, we don't take sides in policy debates or what's best for the future. Even if Krugman is ultimately proved right, it doesn't change the fact that deficits are projected to rise over the next 10 years. Those numbers come from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the federal government's widely respected and independent budgeting forecaster.

Well, yes, of course progressive bloggers were the ones to call foul about Cantor not being called for a foul. Conservatives aren't going to call him (or PolitiFact) out – he was parroting a conservative talking point which maintains that the deficit is rising even in the face of a falling deficit.

In trying to maintain its self-righteous position of being above policy debates, Politifact falls into the common media trap: portray both sides as a little bit right or a little bit wrong. To paraphrase PolitiFact's own reasoning, even if the CBO is ultimately proved right, it doesn't change the fact that Cantor said that the deficit is currently rising.

It's not a question of ideology; it's a question of basic grammar and reading comprehension.