The Rise of Political Fact-Checking  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

The Rise of Political Fact-Checking   

Two good examples of news outlets holding candidates accountable. Posted: Tues. May 24, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


One of the more encouraging developments in journalism in recent years has been the rise of the fact-checking movement.

For too long, too many news outlets were content to simply report what a public official or candidate said. In cases of controversy, they'd print the assertion or allegation, get a response and leave it at that.

While such stenography was never a particularly satisfying approach, the overly credulous early reporting on the allegations against Sen. John Kerry by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 underscored just how bankrupt it was.

Recent years have seen the rise of significant fact-checking organizations like the pioneering FactCheck.org, which actually predated the Swift Boat mess, and the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact.com. PolitiFact has also set up local franchise operations with individual news organizations, while other news outlets have started their own.

The value of such operations is highlighted by coverage of a couple of recent political developments.

In one case, Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker for the Washington Post, took apart Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's explanation of how he could have ended up owing up to $500,000 to Tiffany's. In a must-see TV interview with Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" Sunday, there was this priceless exchange. Summarizing doesn't do it justice; it's much better to read it (or watch it) in its entirety:

NEWT GINGRICH: You know, we don't do elaborate things.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Did you owe a half-million dollars to a jewelry company at one point?

GINGRICH: We had a revolving fund.

SCHIEFFER: Well, what does that mean?

GINGRICH: It means that we had a revolving fund. It was a

SCHIEFFER: I mean, who buys a half-million dollars worth of jewelry on credit?

GINGRICH: No. It's a go talk to Tiffany's. It's a standard, no-interest account.

SCHIEFFER: How long did you owe it?

GINGRICH: I have no idea, but it was paid off automatically. We paid no interest on it. There was no problem with it. It's a normal way of doing business.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I mean, it's very odd to me that someone would run up a half-million-dollar bill at a jewelry store.

GINGRICH: Well, go talk to Tiffany's. All I'm telling you is we are very frugal. We, in fact, live within our budget. We owe nothing.

Although the "defense" seems absurd on its face, Kessler decided to do some reporting. While Tiffany's wouldn't play ball, Kessler examined Tiffany's current credit application and interviewed a number of credit experts. He also pointed out that the debt wasn't paid off very quickly, since it was on the disclosure form of Gingrich's third wife Calista for two straight years.

Kessler's conclusions:

"So either Gingrich and his wife paid high rates of interest on their Tiffany's debt or they received a special deal because of his political prominence. The fact that Tiffany won't say a word after Gingrich said to 'go talk' to them certainly raises questions.

"Given the facts at hand, under the 'reasonable-man' standard, Gingrich earns three Pinocchios for his statement. If new facts come to light, we could adjust this ruling."

Another good example is the Associated Press' fact-checking of some of the statements made by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who on Monday announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Pawlenty portrayed himself as a truth-teller as he launched his campaign. So the AP decided to put him to the test.

An excerpt:

PAWLENTY: "Barack Obama has consistently stood for higher taxes." Campaign announcement.

THE FACTS: Obama's record shows more tax cutting than tax raising. The stimulus plan early in his presidency cut taxes broadly for the middle class and business, and more recently he won a substantial cut in Social Security taxes for a year. He also campaigned in support of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all except the wealthy, whose taxes he wanted to raise. In office, he accepted a deal from Republicans extending the tax cuts for all. As for tax increases, Obama won congressional approval to raise them on tobacco and tanning salons. The penalty for those who don't buy health insurance, once coverage is mandatory, is a form of taxation.

And another:

PAWLENTY: "For decades before I was elected, governors tried and failed to get Minnesota out of the top 10 highest-taxed states in the country. I actually did it." Campaign announcement.

THE FACTS: Minnesota remains among the 10 worst states in its overall tax climate, according to the Tax Foundation. In its 2011 State Business Tax Climate Index, the anti-tax organization ranks Minnesota 43rd, making it the eighth worst state. The ranking slipped from 41st two years earlier. The index considers corporate, individual, sales, unemployment insurance and property taxes.

With all the relentless cacophony and spin that characterize today's politics, it's critical for news organizations to help people cut through the confusion. Here are two cases in which the AP and the Post were doing just that.

There is, of course, a long time to go until Election Day. Here's hoping that news outlets continue to hammer away until the polls close.

One other thing: In order to ensure credibility, it's important that the fact-checkers are guided purely by the facts, not by partisanship or ideology. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, must be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny.

If they are, the fact-checkers will be doing a major public service for a democracy that desperately needs it.

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