CBS Let 'Biggest Lie of the Year' in Politics Go Unanswered For Months

Tuesday's Early Show on CBS brought on PolitiFact's Bill Adair to reveal what he labeled as the "biggest lie of the year" inside politics, which was "the claim by many Democrats that the Republicans voted to end Medicare." But CBS let Democratic operatives spout that falsehood several times without scrutiny earlier in 2011.

The network did stand out in bringing on the PolitiFact editor, something ABC and NBC didn't do on Tuesday. Adair stated that Democrats "say that the House voted to end Medicare. That's not what they did. What the House did was vote to protect Medicare on people who are 55 and older, but to privatize it and restructure it...for people who are younger...it's wrong to say 'end Medicare,' and it's a...classic scare tactic that we've seen targeting the elderly for many years."

Correspondent Nancy Cordes explained during a May 25, 2011 report on CBS Evening News that "under Ryan's proposal, today's seniors would see no changes. But for Americans under 55, Medicare would pay a set amount for private coverage with the average senior paying nearly $6400 more in 2022 than they would today." Cordes noted this after playing a clip from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who claimed that "the Republican plan to kill Medicare was the number one issue" during a special election in New York.

On a few other occasions later in the year, CBS let other Democrats use that "biggest lie" unchallenged. Four days after Cordes's report, on the May 29 edition of Face the Nation, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, charged that "the Republicans have a plan to end Medicare as we know it." The Florida politician used a similar line on The Early Show on August 13:

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: [Republicans] are rigidly adhering to what the Tea Party is demanding, and that is an unreasonable focus on dramatic spending cuts, on supporting an end to Medicare as we know it, privatizing Social Security, removing the safety net out from under our seniors and not doing anything to make sure that we can bring the country together....

Just over two months earlier, on June 9's Early Show, Democratic strategist Robert Zimmerman brought in the "biggest lie" into his take on the Rep. Anthony Weiner scandal: "Right now, most Democratic members of Congress I speak to would sooner stand next to Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican who authored the end of Medicare, than stand with Anthony Weiner."

The full transcript of the Bill Adair segment on Tuesday's Early Show:

CHRIS WRAGGE: Well, we all know that politicians can stretch the facts to fit their agenda. But- I know should have said that-

ERICA HILL: Excuse me?

WRAGGE: I know. Where am I coming up with this stuff?

HILL: I'm going to need a moment to process that.

WRAGGE: It's hard to stand up and call them liars, though, and that's where PolitiFact.com comes in and does it for us. (laughs)

HILL: (laughs) There you go. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning website. If you're not familiar with it, basically, what they do is they take a look at what politicians say, and then determine just how honest or how truthful those remarks are. And then, at the end of the year, PolitiFact names the biggest lie of the year.

Bill Adair is editor of PolitiFact. He's here to reveal this year's biggest lie. Bill, nice to have you with us this morning.

[CBS News Graphic: "Biggest Lie Of The Year: PolitiFact Reveals Their Number One Choice"]

BILL ADAIR, EDITOR, POLITIFACT: Thanks for having me.

HILL: So you spend this whole- you spend the whole year looking at all the different things you put together and that you've looked at, to come down to the biggest lie. So what takes top billing for 2011?

ADAIR: It's the claim by many Democrats that the Republicans voted to end Medicare, and this was a claim we heard over and over again after the House voted in April on a budget by Paul Ryan. And it's just not true. The way that they say it- they say that the House voted to end Medicare. That's not what they did. What the House did was vote to protect Medicare on people who are 55 and older, but to privatize it and restructure it, in a pretty dramatic way, for people who are younger. But it's wrong to say 'end Medicare,' and it's a, sort of, classic scare tactic that we've seen targeting the elderly for many years.

WRAGGE: All right. What we're going to do here is the give the folks at home a little video to help support exactly what the biggest lie of 2011 was. Let's take a look at some of the ads that you were talking about here that were saying that Representative Ryan's plan would kill Medicare. Let's take a look. (clip of The Agenda Project's ad with a man wheeling an elderly woman to the edge of a cliff and throwing her off)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1 (from Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad): Did someone call the fire department, because it's about to get hot in here?

WRAGGE: (laughs) Okay. So, obviously, there wasn't a whole lot of production value with those ads. (Hill laughs) But why did this lie, in your estimation, trump all of the others, though, that you had to choose from?

ADAIR: Well- and I think those ads really illustrate it. There actually were two videos that you edited together there. The first one had a Paul Ryan lookalike actually pushing the old lady off the cliff. And, again, it's targeting an audience of elderly people. But the elderly people are actually protected under the Ryan plan. So it really was a distortion of what Ryan was trying to do, which was change the plan and save money for people who were younger. And, you know, it's amazing- you go back in history, this kind of attack has been going on since 1952 at least-

HILL: Wow-

ADAIR: But why? Because it works.

HILL: (laughs) Health care, in general, has really been a source of attack, and politically, we know it's been a bit of a hot potato over the last few years. Three years- is that how many years you've been really seeing a spike in all of these health care claims?

ADAIR: Well, in fact, for three years, our lie of the year has involved health care. Last year, it was the claim by Republicans that the health care law was a government takeover. The year before that, it was death panels. And health care is ripe for big falsehoods because it's complicated; there are life or death stakes to it; and I think everybody's worried- am I going to be able to afford health care? And so, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if we see another lie of the year involving health care.

WRAGGE: All right. Let's take a look at some of the other finalists here, since it's an election season. Michele Bachmann, who had this one- I guess, let's take a look at it real quick, in regards to the HPV debate.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (from NBC News interview): I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.

WRAGGE: So what did you find when you investigated this claim?

ADAIR: We rated that 'false' on our 'Truth-O-Meter.' And, you know, the doctors' organizations all came out and were very critical of Congresswoman Bachmann for saying that- saying something that was not based on medical evidence, going out publicly with something based on one anecdote. So that was a finalist. Ultimately, we didn't pick that one because it didn't have the reach that the Medicare claim did, but definitely, a big falsehood in 2011.

HILL: Boy, you've got a lot to work with in an election year, Bill. It's going to keep you very busy over the next year or so, and we look forward to checking it out with you at Politifact.com. Bill, thanks for being with us.

ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center