The Fact-Checking Movement
Campaign strategists, especially at the presidential level, know well just how easy it is to fool the public. No ad goes out without significant data from polls and focus groups to ensure its effectiveness. Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column at the Washington Post, tells a story about the head of a super PAC who chewed him out after Kessler called him on a deceptive ad. “This was after he was screaming at me about something I had written, and he laughed and said, ‘I actually don’t give a hoot what you say, because these ads work.’”
This is the challenge now facing the political press, which has largely embraced the cause of correcting politicians when they run astray. As recently as the 1980s, journalists stayed on the sidelines when politicians fibbed, preferring to report on the back-and-forth rather than get involved in adjudicating the underlying merits of each claim. There were some early efforts to fact-check Ronald Reagan, who argued, among other things, that vegetation was the major source of air pollution. But when George H.W. Bush ran an ad in 1988 falsely claiming that Michael Dukakis “opposed virtually every defense system we have developed,” including the Stealth bomber, his charge went mostly unchallenged. Dukakis did support the Stealth bomber and other defense systems.
The move to push for more accuracy began in earnest in the 1990s and evolved into the fact-checking outfits of today. It is grueling, sometimes messy work, given the complexity of the claims made in the course of a campaign day. Obama routinely says, for example, that use of renewable energy doubled under his watch, which is true only if you define renewable to mean just wind and solar energy. Romney claims that he can cut income tax rates 20% and still raise the same revenue with the same progressivity by eliminating deductions and loopholes. Using traditional budget scoring, this is not possible, though some conservative economists say the cuts should be judged outside traditional metrics, assuming new economic growth that would make the math add up. But there is much debate over the legitimacy of such predictions. “Truth is not a binary,” says Bill Adair, who founded PolitiFact, a site that employs 35 reporters and won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 campaign. “We recognize that truth is in shades of gray and different interpretations can be valid.”
But even when there is little gray area, the fact checkers often find themselves sidelined or, worse, used as tools of dishonest campaigns. Both the Romney and Obama operations often cite fact checkers to underscore their opponents’ deceptions but have resisted changing their own behavior. More and more, the worst deceptions fly under the radar, with microtargeted mailings and radio spots that can escape the attention of fact checkers. One of the most deceptive spots of the 2008 campaign was an Obama radio ad that claimed McCain “stood in the way” of stem-cell research despite McCain’s long record of support. Though it’s easy to track down television spots posted on YouTube, reporters and fact checkers then had to find out about the ad from the McCain campaign.
In late September, Brooks Jackson, a veteran CNN reporter who runs FactCheck.org, convened his colleagues, including Kessler, Adair and Jim Drinkard of the Associated Press, to discuss their craft at the National Press Club. “Do you see places where either campaign has paid a price for misrepresenting facts?” Jackson asked them. Several seconds of silence followed. “Well, that’s kind of depressing,” Jackson said. Eventually, Kessler chimed in by noting that Romney has stopped saying in stump speeches that the U.S. is the only country on earth where hands are put over hearts during the national anthem. Kessler disproved the claim with YouTube video from other countries. “He dropped that the very next day,” Kessler said. Not exactly a huge score.