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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

A Busy Season for Political Fact-Checkers   

The presidential candidates have taken plenty of liberties, and the outlook is for lots more shenanigans before voters go to the polls. Tues., May 22, 2012.

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

Call it the Fact-Checking Summit.

The key players in journalism's burgeoning fact-checking movement were on the scene: pioneer Brooks Jackson, who launched and runs FactCheck.org; Bill Adair, editor of the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times initiative that also has regional branches around the country; Glenn Kessler, who writes the The Fact Checker for the Washington Post; and longtime D.C. correspondent Jim Drinkard, who oversees accountability reporting for the Associated Press.

The venue was the National Press Club, where FactCheck's parent, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, on Tuesday convened a program called "Fact Checking the 2012 Election: Views from the Trenches."

During the opening panel, the fact-checking lions talked about their favorite fact-stretching of the presidential campaign so far, on topics ranging from health care to gas prices. And they seemed to reach a rough consensus on the impact of their work.

They touched on the frustrating phenomenon that people often cling to bogus information no matter how often it's debunked (see "birther movement"). "Fact-checking is not a magic solution or cure for distortions," Drinkard said. Often, "people believe what they want to believe."

Jackson agreed. People "scratch pretty hard to find facts to support what they believe," Jackson said, while ignoring accurate information that is directly in front of them.

All of the fact-checkers recalled episodes in which pols had adjusted their statements after they were called out for playing fast and loose. Adair cited a corrective tweet by David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's top political strategist. Kessler mentioned subtle changes and tweaking of language. Drinkard remembered when Newt Gingrich finally stopped saying he had balanced four budgets as House speaker--problem was, two of those budgets came after he had left office. At last, Gingrich changed his language to say he had set the conditions for the fourpeat, and gave a shoutout to the AP fact-checkers. But he quickly reverted to the gaudier, if untrue, claim.

And make no mistake: There was widespread agreement among the fact-checking gurus that if a talking point seems to be resonating, candidates will continue to belabor it, no matter how phony it is.

"Ultimately, if it's a line that works..they'll just keep using it," Kessler said, citing as an example the discredited claim that Obama had "apologized for America." He pointed out that the stakes are very high, adding, "You're possibly going to throw away the presidency because you decided your facts aren't right?"

On a panel later in the morning, Patrick Kessler, a political reporter for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, expressed a similar view. "I don't know that it has an impact at all on politicians."

But Jackson, who has been in the fact-checking business for two decades and who launched FactCheck.org in 2003, said that was almost beside the point.

"I personally don't think it's our job to change their behavior," said Jackson, adding that anyone who goes into his line of work expecting to do so is destined for a life filled with frustration.

Rather, he said, the mission is to give citizens the information they need to sort out fact from fiction, reality from rhetoric. Glenn Kessler added, "My hope is that we change voter behavior," helping people become sophisticated consumers of political ads.

As the presidential campaign plays out, the fact-checkers should have plenty to keep them busy, if their predictions are on target.

Jackson was succinct: He expects "more of the same." Glenn Kessler was even more downbeat. He says in this era of freewheeling super PACs, we can look forward to "the most nasty, brutish campaign in American history."

Fact-checkers, start your computers!