The Frustrations of Fact Checkers

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MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at the Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio on Sept. 25, 2012.

Midway through a Wednesday morning panel discussion with the nation’s top political fact checkers,’s Brooks Jackson asked his colleagues if they could think of a case where candidates this cycle have “paid a price” for misleading the public. Several seconds of silence at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. followed. “Well, that’s kind of depressing,” Jackson observed.

Indeed. A few minutes later, Glenn Kessler, who heads up fact checking at the Washington Post, told a story about combative conversation he had with the head of a SuperPac, who he had called out for misleading voters. “He laughed at me and said, ‘I actually don’t give a hoot, because these ads work. They move voters,'” Kessler said, before noting that the actual language was a bit less family friendly.

Two facts define the current landscape of presidential campaigns when it comes to truth telling. First, the press has been more aggressive this year than in any recent presidential election in calling out factual inaccuracies from the Presidential campaigns and the outside groups supporting them. Second, the severity and frequency of factual errors uttered by the campaigns and the outside groups has shown no real change from past contests. If anything, it may have gotten slightly worse than in recent cycles.

Such is the paradox of truth in politics: Everyone claims it. Few abide by it. And those who depart from it rarely suffer much. A study released Wednesday by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which oversees, found that between April 10 and September 20 of this year, roughly a third of the money spent by third parties on television advertising–27.8% to be exact–went to spots that were deceptive. The pro-Obama Priorities USA spent 33.5% of its money on deceptive ads. The pro-Romney Restore Our Future spent 27.4% of its money on deceptive ads. Crossroads GPS, the Republican group that does not disclose its donors, spent 26.6% of its money on deceptive ads.

None of this suggests that the cause is lost, or that fact checking as an endeavor is fruitless. But it does reveal a real weakness in the American democratic process. A separate Annenberg poll released Wednesday found high percentages of the public are unaware of the falsehoods being peddled in this campaign. Just 46% of Americans correctly identified the claim that Mitt Romney will “work to make abortion illegal in all circumstances” as false. (Romney supports an exemption for rape, incest and the life of the mother.) Only 53.6% of Americans correctly identified the statement that “Barack Obama has dropped all work requirements for individuals receiving welfare” as false. (Obama allowed states more flexibility in setting requirements, but still conditions funding on the demonstration of work placement.)

It was the voters who showed the most interest in getting the facts right that got the most facts right. Those who said they had visited a fact-checking website got 55.5% of the facts right in the poll, compared to the 45.3% accuracy rate of those who did not go to a fact checking website. As always, the only way to defeat falsehood is to be educated with facts. The unknown going forward is just how many voters will choose to exercise that option, and demand that their politicians stop deceiving them.