The Fact-Checkers Are Clueless

CNN's Jake Tapper is the latest mainstream journalist to attack Bernie Sanders's Medicare-for-All plan. And just like all the others, his fact-checking is an absolute joke.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during an event on Capitol Hill last September introducing his Medicare for All Act of 2017. Alex Wong / Getty

CNN’s Jake Tapper released a video on Friday claiming to fact-check Bernie Sanders’s claims about the cost of Medicare for All. Tapper’s fact check follows in the tradition of the fact checks that came before him in that it is riddled with errors that the libertarian Mercatus Center fed him. At this point, I think it is safe to say that one of the main impediments to the success of Medicare for All is that liberal and centrist media is mostly too stupid or dishonest to accurately describe the proposal to their audience.

Mercatus Study

To understand where Tapper went off the rails, it is necessary to first explain the Mercatus Center paper at the center of all these controversies. On July 30, the Mercatus Center released a report by Charles Blahous scoring Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill. The report says that under our current health care system, Americans as a whole will spend $59.7 trillion on health care between 2022 and 2031. Blahous then goes on to find that under Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill, Americans will only spend $57.6 trillion, for a savings of roughly $2 trillion.

The study also finds that, because the federal government will take on almost all health care spending under Medicare for All, its share of total health spending will rise from $21.9 trillion to $54.6 trillion, an increase of around $32.6 trillion.

So, in short, under Sanders’s Medicare-for-All plan, the American people as a whole will save $2 trillion, and federal spending will increase by $32.6 trillion. That is the clear finding of Blahous’s study.

The Fact Check

In Tapper’s fact check, he shows a video of Bernie Sanders saying: “Let me thank the Koch Brothers, of all people, for sponsoring a study that shows that Medicare for All would save the American people $2 trillion over a ten-year period.” This claim made by Sanders is 100 percent correct. There are no errors in it, and it is not deceptive in any way.

So how does Tapper find an error in a statement that is entirely true? By pretending that Bernie Sanders said something other than what he said. Specifically, Tapper describes Sanders’s claim as such: “[Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez] say that a study funded by the billionaire Koch brothers [shows that] the Medicare-for-All proposal would actually save the government money.”

Tapper then goes on to debunk the claim that “the government” would save $2 trillion and declare Bernie Sanders a liar, even though Sanders actually said “the American people” would save $2 trillion, which is entirely true.

Tapper’s fact checking was so egregiously wrong that even people who were previously uninterested in challenging shoddy fact checking piped in and told him he was wrong on Twitter and elsewhere. Tapper rejected these criticisms initially but as of Sunday afternoon has conceded the video is wrong and promised that it will be corrected soon.

More Errors

Most of the backlash to the video focused on Tapper misrepresenting Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. But there are deeper problems with his fact check that also reflect the deeper problems in just about every other fact check.

Later in the video Tapper acknowledges that the paper says overall health spending would decline by $2 trillion, but then says, “The study’s author says that that $2 trillion drop is not actually his conclusion. He says that’s based on assumptions by Senator Sanders.” Tapper then turns to the “alternative scenario” Blahous constructs in the appendix of his report, which shows that, if you do not do Bernie Sanders’s plan but instead do a different plan with higher provider payment rates, then obviously the overall cost of the plan increases.

There are two main issues with this presentation, which Mercatus has skillfully coached a half dozen clueless fact-checkers to repeat.

The first is that the provider payment rates in Sanders’s plan are not assumptions. There are a lot of assumptions that go into scoring these plans. For instance, you have to make assumptions about how much more people will go to the doctor and how much more medicine they will take. But the provider payment rates are not assumptions; rather, they are written into the law itself. If Sanders says he is going to use Medicare reimbursement rates to pay providers, then that is what he is going to use. Any score that replaces those rates with some other set of rates is straightforwardly not a score of Sanders’s plan. End of discussion.

The second is that Tapper is committing journalistic malpractice by credulously believing what Blahous tells him about the study. What happened in this case is that Blahous wrote a study that showed federal expenditures would increase by $32.6 trillion and then buried the fact that this same estimate showed Americans overall would save $2 trillion in the tables of his report. After some writers and politicians started picking up on this hidden factoid, Blahous then started to do damage control by claiming that the estimate he just got finished promoting to the world is actually not the real one and that instead the real estimate is the one in the appendix that he calls an “alternative scenario” and that he says explicitly in the paper does not track Sanders’s plan as written.

Blahous’s new representation of his study, which came after he saw the reaction to it, cannot be assumed to be the correct one just because he authored the initial study. Rather the initial study stands alone and says what it says. It would be like if you had a recording of a man saying “I killed her” and then the man later said “I didn’t kill her” and so you reported: “Fact Check: Man Did Not Actually Kill Her.”

To determine whether the study says what Sanders says, you need to read it and independently judge that. If you are not capable of doing that, which most journalists aren’t due to the complexity of the matter, then you need to talk to a lot of people from different sides who have read the report and have the skills necessary to describe it to you. Instead, journalists like Tapper have decided to only ask Blahous, who has an incentive to deceive people, what the report says rather than asking neutral experts or experts from different political persuasions to describe the report.

It is not just Tapper who has done this, of course. According to Bernie Sanders’s policy director Warren Gunnels, the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler did not contact the Sanders office prior to writing his similar fact check and, when Gunnels later contacted Kessler to complain, Kessler allegedly said that “he has known the author of the Mercatus study for years & basically trusts whatever he says.” Kessler went on to issue three substantive corrections to his fact check, which seems to suggest that perhaps Blahous was not steering him straight.

This is the kind of nonsense we are dealing with here. Tribal affiliations are getting in the way of basic presentations of facts and figures. The centrist and liberal media brand themselves as truth-tellers, but that’s all it is: a brand. When the truth goes against their tribe or ideological priors, they become just as bad as Fox News.