Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

PolitiFact a distillery for truth

Like a great scotch, the appeal of PolitiFact is in its simplicity.
Like a great scotch, the appeal of PolitiFact is in its simplicity.

This story, written by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s managing editor and senior editorial director, ran in the Sunday July 22 edition of the newspaper.

There’s something about PolitiFact.

Maybe it’s the clarity it forces on public discourse. Perhaps it’s the eye-catching Truth-O-Meter with its brutal simplicity. Or could it be its distaste for nuance in a world grown comfortable with wiggle room?

Or maybe people just like when it cheerfully calls out politicians who mangle the truth.

Whatever it is, in the just over two years that we have produced it, PolitiFact Georgia has become a force. When people praise the newspaper, they almost always mention PolitiFact.

PolitiFact is powerful because it represents the essence of what we do. It is intensely distilled journalism that filters out the good intentions, mendacity and ignorance that lead public officials to fracture the truth occasionally. Like a great scotch, the appeal is in its simplicity. That’s why politicians and power brokers hate it, if "hate" is a strong enough word. They hate it in part because PolitiFact is deeply literal: It parses for exact meaning with less concern for broad contexts and themes. Perhaps to a fault, PolitiFact values precision over intention.

But the bigger source of irritation may be that PolitiFact forces limits on what public servants can get away with telling their publics. It messes with the controls to their messaging. This leads to apoplexy.

It also gores everyone’s ox. Left-leaning TV news star Rachel Maddow hates it as much as conservative Republican Sarah Palin. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, have found common ground in their — how shall I say this? — displeasure with PolitiFact’s findings. (Each has merited one "pants on fire" rating.)

Inevitably, PolitiFact is accused of masking a political bias. Earlier this month, Virginia Republicans attacked that state’s PolitiFact, accusing it of focusing unfair and disproportionate scrutiny on GOP officials. News organizations in 11 states have their own versions and coordinate with the national PolitiFact in Washington.

We hear the same complaint here. Even so, it’s unrealistic to expect precise equity. PolitiFact tests items that are newsworthy and timely with little regard for ideology. And in this state, PolitiFact Georgia draws from a stream of public statements that runs a bright GOP red. With the exception of a few city and county offices, Republicans hold virtually every position of power and influence in the state. The governor, lieutenant governor, state House and Senate leaders, chairmen of key committees, heads of state departments, both U.S. senators, nine of 13 congressmen, on and on, are Republicans.

The state has so few powerful Democrats that PolitiFact Georgia has to look to Democrats from elsewhere to avoid giving the impression that it trains its fire only on Republicans.

Since its launch in June 2010, PolitiFact Georgia has examined 180 statements by Republicans and/or conservative-leaning officials while looking at 107 of their Democratic and/or left-leaning counterparts.

Its rulings have struck an amazing balance:

Statements by Democrats/liberals have been rated "true" or "mostly true" about a quarter of the time, while statements by Republicans/conservatives have been rated "true" or "mostly true" about a third of the time.

Statements by Democrats/liberals have been rated "false" or "pants on fire" nearly a third of the time, about the same as those by Republicans/conservatives.

PolitiFact has tested statements by Gov. Deal and his staff 26 times. The ratings are "true," 6; "mostly true," 5; "half true," 4; "mostly false," 6; false, 4; and "pants on fire," 1. (If you plotted this on a curve, it would look much like the curve for national PolitiFact’s findings for President Barack Obama.)

PolitiFact also weighs in on big issues such as the regional transportation referendum set for July 31. It may surprise you to know, gentle readers, that such a massive and historic undertaking has generated its fair share of swamp gas. PolitiFact has found fault with both sides. (You can see a roundup of T-SPLOST items at politifact.com/georgia, and we’ll be running them in the paper on the Sunday before the vote.)

While nothing is perfect, I have been impressed with the quality of PolitiFact’s findings. Our veteran team — Jim Tharpe, Eric Stirgus and Willoughby Mariano — approaches the work dispassionately, diligently and deliberately. They’ve helped PolitiFact make an indelible mark.

I feel the pain of politicians who find "pants on fire" rulings painful.  The best way to avoid the agony is to stop lying.