When a Lie Isn't One

Paul Greenberg

3/9/2011 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

One of the most abused words in today's political rhetoric has to be "lie." It's used to cover everything from an innocent misstatement to a broken promise to a misleading phrase.

By now the strict definition of lie -- a conscious, deliberate falsehood -- is almost forgotten, the word is so over-used. Certainly in politics. For it's no longer enough for partisans to say an opponent is wrong or misleading or exaggerating or even being disingenuous. He's got to be lying.

A perfect case in point, among so many, comes from an outfit called PolitiFact, which claims to be in the business of fact-checking in politics. Or is it just expressing its political views under the guise of impartial analysis?

You decide. It helps to note that PolitiFact has decided that last year's "lie of the year" was any reference to ObamaCare as "a government takeover of health care."

There are facts and there are PolitiFacts, and the twain may never meet. For it seems as if every day brings a new revelation about what-all is or isn't in that 2,000-page horse-choker of a bill commonly known as Obamacare. Or in the plethora of government regulations flowing from it.

If all this verbiage doesn't add up to a government takeover, could we at least agree it's a government makeover of American health care? It certainly feels like it. Here's a recent example: A 136-page notice from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services informed state governments that from now on the feds will be the ones who decide what's "reasonable" or "unreasonable" to charge for health insurance.

Now this may sound like a government takeover to simple types like you and me, but not to the masterminds at PolitiFact, who say talk about a takeover "conjures (up) a European approach (in which) the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees."

But few government takeovers in this country's history would qualify as such under PolitiFact's demanding definition, not even Harry Truman's seizure of the steel mills in 1952. For that industry remained in private hands. Technically. The government was just going to set wages and prices and policies in the steel industry, that's all. Much the same way ObamaCare is going to set the price of health insurance and reimbursement rates for medical services.

Under the coming makeover/takeover of health care in this country, government will also decide which medical procedures will be covered under the new system and which won't be. And, oh, yes, health insurance will be made mandatory. At least for some of us, since the administration keeps handing out waivers.

If that isn't a government takeover of American health care, it's mighty close. Indeed, it's the very essence of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka ObamaCare. (Those phrases about "patient protection" and "affordable care" are highly debatable themselves, but I wouldn't call them lies -- just slick merchandising.)

Mr. Truman's takeover of the steel industry failed when the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Which must have been quite a surprise to the president, who by then had made a habit of seizing industries embroiled in labor disputes -- steel, coal, the railroads ... you name it.

The history books refer to President Truman's seizure of the steel industry as a seizure. Also a takeover. Is that a lie, too? If so, it was certainly a widespread one.

Today it's not just the cost of insurance premiums but talk about them that the Department of Health and Human Services (The Hon. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary thereof) seeks to control. Last September, when some insurance executives complained about the rising costs being imposed on their companies, she declared that "there will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation...."

If that's not a threat to free speech, it's certainly the kind of comment that can be expected to have a chilling effect on it.

When is a government takeover not a government takeover? Here's the gospel according to Politifact:

When government determines the limits of insurance coverage and medical fees and patient treatment through price controls, that's not a government takeover of health care. It may feel like one, it may have the same effect as one, but the federal government doesn't actually own the hospitals, clinics and medical practices. It just controls their prices and policies by controlling health insurance. Ergo, any talk of a government takeover of health care is not just wrong but a lie. Indeed, the biggest lie of the year.

You have to wonder if PolitiFact would recognize Government Motors, a takeover in which the federal government actually got stock in automobile companies, as a takeover. Maybe, maybe not. After all, the government didn't confiscate GM or Chrysler. It just seized control of them. Was that a government takeover? Who knows? Only PolitiFact.

PolitiFact seems to have its own, arbitrary definitions of words. Words like takeover. And fact. And lie.

Politifact'seditor might as well be Humpty Dumpty, who told little Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Alice didn't buy it, and neither do I.

I'm not saying PolitiFact is lying. How about just stretching the truth? Whatever it's called, its political prejudices are showing.