From Fact-Checking Politicians to Helping Plot Journalism’s Future
PolitiFact founder Bill Adair talks about his influential creation and his new position at Duke. Fri., April 9, 2013
By Sandra Muller
Sandra Muller (email@example.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Bill Adair wants to change journalism--again. He did it six years ago when he and the Tampa Bay Times launched the fact-checking sensation PolitiFact. And now the veteran journalist is ready for his new gig, this time in North Carolina at Duke University.
Starting July 1, Adair, 51, will be the Knight Professor of Computational Journalism at the university's Sanford School of Public Policy. He will hold one of 25 chairs endowed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
While half his job will be teaching students on the intersection of journalism and public policy, the other half will focus on research and experimentation regarding new forms of journalism.
"Journalism is changing in that fewer journalists are covering government, so there are fewer eyeballs keeping an eye on the people we elect," Adair says. "What I would like to do is use new technology to help to replace some of those missing journalists and help those that are left."
He adds, "Newspapers, TV stations and radio stations don't have the resources to create these things. So I want to build these for them. The Duke job is a wonderful perch to experiment with different kinds of things that can advance journalism in one way or another."
"It's a great move for Duke," says Neil Brown, the Times' editor and vice president. "And while I'm very sad to lose him, I believe he will tell the story of the power of journalism very effectively, and that will help our business in the long run."
Adair will build on the work of his predecessor, Sarah Cohen, who created the Reporters' Lab, an online forum for journalism innovation, while she was the Knight Chair from 2009 to 2012. Cohen left Duke to join the New York Times.
"Sarah is an old friend of mine and a great data journalist," Adair says. "The things that I envision are similar to Sarah's vision in that they are about using data to tell stories and hold government accountable."
James Hamilton, director of Duke's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, says he is "extremely excited that Bill wants to do innovative journalism beyond PolitiFact."
He adds that Adair's commitment to accountability journalism and fostering the the sustainability of news production helped make him an "outstanding candidate" during the faculty's search for a new chair.
Says Brown, "What I value most about Bill is how he combines a willingness to try new things with an old-fashioned newsman's belief that our most important job is to be accurate and get it right. He's an energetic, creative spirit who views our work with optimism rather than cynicism."
Adair, a married father of three, says that his passion for journalism was triggered in 1976 by the movie "All the President's Men" and the assassination of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles.
"Those two things really said to me that journalism is important, and it looked like an exciting profession I wanted to be a part of," he says.
After receiving a degree in political science from Arizona State University in 1985, Adair worked at the Fairfax Journal in Virginia before moving to Florida for a job at the St. Petersburg Times, which was renamed the Tampa Bay Times at the beginning of 2012.
He covered, among other things, the aviation beat, which led to his book "The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation." Adair became the Times' Washington bureau chief in 2004, and three years later he proposed PolitiFact, whose mission is to assess the veracity of the statements of political figures.
The Times launched PolitiFact that year with Adair as its editor (he has continued to serve as the paper's Washington bureau chief). PoilitiFact, which along with the Annenberg Public Policy Center's factcheck.org has helped spur much more aggressive fact-checking of politicians in American journalism, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
After 24 years of "amazing" memories at the Times and PolitiFact, Adair does not want to completely let go of the past. "One of the things I will miss a lot is the culture of this newspaper and the wonderful people and their commitment to great journalism," he says.
Adair, who will remain a consultant and contributing editor, says the advent of PolitiFact is a "remarkable story in American journalism" because it was created by a regional newspaper "with big ambition and a commitment to public service."
In addition to maintaining its national operation, PolitiFact has helped give birth to 10 regional offshoots across the country. And aspects of PolitiFact have taken root in other countries; there's even a "MorsiMeter" in Egypt, inspired by the "Obameter".
"The benefit of all of this is that people are better informed around the world about what their elected officials are doing," Adair says. "And that's a great thing."
"I think PolitiFact was the right tool at the right time..because never before has there been more information for voters and citizens to make sense of," Adair says. "It helps people sort out the truth in all the information."
While some critics say fact-checking is a failure because some politicians ignore its findings and continue to lie, Adair counters, "We don't say investigative journalism is a failure because politicians are still crooked. Fact-checking is a huge success because we are doing what journalism should do: We're informing people."
He adds. "We also don't know how many politicians didn't lie because they knew PolitiFact was out there--probably a lot."
Some of PolitiFact's findings have attracted intense criticism. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow urged it to "go away," saying it was "like a zombie, eating our national brains." Adair says such verbal assaults go with the territory. "That's the nature of doing this difficult journalism," he says. "You will make more new enemies than friends."
And soon there will be even more critiques-- and fans--when PolitiFact Australia launches
"We must solidify its place in political journalism and widen its reach," Brown says of PolitiFact's expansion plans. "We believe that we need to invest in a strong mix of technology combined with independent reporting to get citizens accurate information about all kinds of subjects in real time."
Perhaps other areas of journalism--say sports and business and science – will become targets for an international army of fact-checkers. "The sky is the limit," Adair says.
And this mind-set also applies to his future.
"What's been wonderful about my career is that I have never really had to worry about what I am going to do next, because opportunities always present themselves," Adair says. "And I am confident that won't be a problem in the future, either."