AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Drop Cap

From AJR,   December/January 2008  issue

Policing the Pols   

Two new Web operations are fact-checking the pronouncements of the presidential candidates.


By Emily Yahr
Emily Yahr (eyahr@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Until the polls close on November 4, 2008, voters will be inundated with countless political messages, from campaign ads and speeches to Web postings and YouTube videos. Some statements will be clear, some will be confusing and many will be contradictory. So how can besieged voters sort out the truth?

This campaign year some news organizations are making ambitious efforts to help them do just that.

PolitiFact.com, a collaboration of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, and the Fact Checker, which appears on washingtonpost.com, are Web operations whose names pretty much spell out what they do. While many news outlets frequently analyze the veracity of candidates' statements, these new ventures aim to thoroughly dissect politicians' every word.

Researchers and reporters for the sites call campaigns, consult with experts and pore over statistics and transcripts to check out Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's promise to "end the war" and Republican Ron Paul's voting history regarding gun ownership. A goal, according to editors, is to be a shortcut for readers, who are often befuddled after watching a long-winded debate or reading a he-said, she-said dispatch from the hustings.

In addition to being valuable resources for readers, some journalists say the online venues could help revitalize campaign coverage.

Bill Adair, Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times and editor of PolitiFact, has covered two presidential campaigns during his approximately 10 years in D.C. He says that while on the trail in 2000 and 2004, he would sometimes quote a candidate and find himself thinking, "That's not true."

"I think we have been scared into a false balance, and we mistakenly believe that every point needs to have a counterpoint," Adair says. But, he adds, "Lots of the time, one side is right. That's not to say anything about politics or partisanship; it's about the facts... We as the media have been scared by false balance. In the process, we don't serve our readers, and they are misled." (See "Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth," December 2004/January 2005.)

After the 2006 senatorial and gubernatorial races, Adair says, he realized something had to change; he thought journalists simply weren't doing enough fact-checking. "I felt we needed to not just put [statements] out there, but we needed to tell people if they were true; we had fallen down on our responsibility by not doing that," he says.

Inspired by Brooks Jackson, who was "fact-checking when no one else was" since his groundbreaking FactCheck.org site launched in December 2003, Adair and his colleagues drew up a plan for PolitiFact, which debuted in early September. Adair shares responsibility for editing PolitiFact with St. Petersburg Times Executive Editor Neil Brown, National Editor Bill Duryea and government and politics editor Scott Montgomery. Staffers from the Times and CQ, both of which are owned by the Poynter Institute, handle the research and reporting.

When it checks out a pol's pronouncement, PolitiFact publishes a brief synopsis of its findings as well as a more comprehensive article. And it hands down one of six verdicts: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and the one that should strike fear in the hearts of politicians everywhere, Pants on Fire, complete with a flame graphic.

The site meted out a True to Republican Fred Thompson's claim to be the lone dissenter in some 99-1 votes and a Pants on Fire to the GOP's Rudy Giuliani for his statement that he is "probably one of the four or five best-known Americans in the world."

While Web-based political fact-checking should be an essential ingredient in any news operation, some editors say, it is impractical to expect it in an era of shrinking staffs and tight budgets. Nine or 10 staff members from the St. Pete Times or CQ are updating PolitiFact at any given time, and most are contributing articles and research on top of their full-time jobs.

The other new fact-checking operation on the trail is much leaner. Michael Dobbs, a longtime reporter and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, came out of retirement to start the Fact Checker blog on washingtonpost.com in September. Along with Post researcher Alice Crites, Dobbs regularly posts quotes from candidates, explores their validity and adds readers' comments.

At the end of each of his posts, Dobbs institutes "The Pinocchio Test," which pays homage to the most famous liar in history. One Pinocchio icon, according to the site, means "some shading of the facts"; that's what Dobbs awarded to President Bush's "exaggerated" claim of the number of countries with troops in Iraq.

The Pinocchio count can go as high as four, in other words, a "whopper." Dobbs gave this distinction to Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards after they made remarks about the number of young African American men in prison. After consulting experts, census data and both campaigns, Dobbs concluded that while both Obama and Edwards were right about the incarceration rate for young African American men being "a national disgrace," the high numbers that their statements suggested were exaggerated.

Dobbs says he hopes the Fact Checker will help people sort out campaign rhetoric better than copy studded with "on one hand" and "on the other hand."

Dobbs says posting analysis on the Fact Checker gives him much more freedom in the way he presents a story. Sometimes an issue calls for an academic tone with graphs and tables, but at other times "we can be much more informal and conversational, in a way that a reporter can't be," he says. That was the case when Dobbs looked into Democrat Mike Gravel's claim that Americans were getting "fatter and dumber." (Verdict: three Pinocchios.)

PolitiFact also tries to strike a balance between serious political issues and lighter fare. In early September, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Wes Allison wrote a thorough examination of Giuliani's claims about crime statistics during his tenure as mayor of New York City, awarding them a "true." (The verdict was later changed to "mostly true" after Giuliani used different numbers in a debate in Orlando on October 21.) In October, Times writer Janet Zink posted an item about Republican John McCain's assertion that "50,000 Americans make their living off of eBay." After checking with a number of sources, it was rated "half true."

"One of our goals early on was not to take ourselves too seriously, and to convey serious information and make well-researched rulings but still write it in such a way that it doesn't read like a term paper," Adair says.

In addition to changing readers' views, these Web sites could also have an impact on the candidates themselves, says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. A campaign is never going to provide impartial information, he says, but knowing a fact-checker is watching might restrain candidates and their staff from the most extreme statements.

The sites have the potential to be influential, Pitney says, because their findings can spread very quickly via blogs. Still, he cautions that there are limitations in divining the ever-elusive truth. "While these [efforts] are helpful, they can never be the last word," Pitney says. "There are always issues of interpretation and emphasis."

Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered the "ad watch" concept when he was at CNN in 1992. Asked about the emergence of new competitors, Jackson says he welcomes the company. "It's great that PolitiFact is trying a different approach, and the Post has a different approach," Jackson says. "The whole idea is to benefit and be a resource to citizens, whatever style they are most comfortable with."

Many journalists, of course, want to be No. 1. But the most important thing is sorting out the truth for the reader, says Nell Benton, news researcher supervisor at CQ and also a researcher for PolitiFact. "There is so much to check, there isn't too much overlap... We're looking at the truth and where the facts lead. The more of these [sites] there are, the better."