You can handle the truth
By Neil Brown
Published on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 at 12:52 p.m.
"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
Neil Newhouse, pollster for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney
That quote at a breakfast the week of the Republican National Convention swept through the press gallery in Tampa, swirled around the blogosphere and even found its way into a scold from former President Bill Clinton during his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Neil Newhouse was defending a Romney ad that claimed President Barack Obama had gutted the successful bipartisan welfare reform law, even though numerous reporters had revealed that the details in the ad were just plain wrong. PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking unit of the Tampa Bay Times, declared the ad "Pants on Fire" false.
Newhouse's candor fanned a brush fire over what some have dubbed the "fact-check movement" — the growing number of journalists who report on the accuracy of what candidates and their surrogates say.
Right-wing publications like the Weekly Standard and the National Review have derided such fact-checking as a liberal conceit. Newhouse has remained unbowed, and the Romney campaign argued that inaccuracies in the welfare ad were debatable and had little to do with the larger differences between Republicans and Obama.
This fact-check business, it turns out, makes some partisans very uncomfortable.
"We have disrupted the status quo in American politics," says my colleague Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact and our Washington bureau chief.
We launched PolitiFact — featuring its now trademarked "Truth-O-Meter" graphic — in August 2007 with a handful of journalists and a promise that if it wasn't popular with readers, we'd quit after the January 2008 Florida presidential primary.
Five years later we have published more than 6,000 Truth-O-Meter stories, set up shop in 11 states and have 36 fact-check journalists reporting on claims made from the White House to the statehouse to City Hall. We are syndicated in newspapers around the country.
Along the way, we've called out Republicans for misleading Americans on Obamacare, and Democrats for scary over-the-top characterizations of Paul Ryan's budget ideas. We've documented every promise candidate Obama made before he became president and scored how many he has kept and broken. We've been "fired" by lefty Rachel Maddow, scolded by liberal Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, berated by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. We won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
The heat comes from all sides and our audience comes from all over. In the past two weeks of party conventions, a record 1.2 million unique users went to PolitiFact.com, racking up more than 4 million page views of our journalism.
Today there is more fact-check journalism under way than ever before. Reporters at Factcheck.org (one of the earliest and most credible initiatives), the Washington Post Fact Checker and other newsrooms are diving deep into the claims of politicians, asking the most basic question: Is it true?
Why would there be a backlash against that? It's all about power.
The candidates, the political parties, the super PACs, the cable TV and talk radio shows — they all spend millions of dollars in order to shape what you believe. There are no question-and-answer sessions after you watch a campaign ad; there are no meaningful disclosures of where their info comes from. Beliefs are declared with authority and impunity and crafted to look like facts. The strategy is clear and not at all new: Say something strongly and frequently enough and perhaps it will be accepted as truth.
But what if you have your own set of tools to judge political speech? What if you have the source of the information and took the time to consider it? You might agree with the claim, you might not. But the power is all yours.
The underpinning of fact-check journalism is this tenet: Words matter. If you don't believe that, then journalism that checks the veracity of political speech may not hold much interest for you.
At PolitiFact, we wrote "Principles of the Truth-O-Meter" to help guide our work. Words matter was the first principle. The second principle: Context matters. And another important principle: We show our math and explain where we got all our information. So you don't have to take our word for it, you can look it up yourself. No anonymous sources.
When Paul Ryan's website accused President Obama of "doubling the size of government since he took office," we rated that Pants on Fire since it turned out Ryan included data from before Obama was president and projected spending for another nine years after his term was up. After our ruling, Ryan's office dropped the claim and replaced it with one more specific to the national debt. Words matter.
When Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, took to the stage in Charlotte, N.C., last week and said Mitt Romney "likes to fire people" — we rated that False and showed how Markell had cherry-picked a sentence out of a Romney quote, making it entirely misleading. Context matters.
At times — the Romney welfare ad being one of the latest — critics complain that this is a movement of nitpickers. We should lighten up, they say, because hyperbole has and always will be a part of politics. Even fellow journalists approach some fact-checking with a measure of cynicism.
"I suppose fact-checking would matter more to voters if they expected honesty from their politicians," Jack Shafer of Reuters wrote last week. "But most don't. … Voters crave rhetoric that stirs their unfact-checked hearts. As long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, they're all right with it."
Campaign managers everywhere are betting Shafer is right. "Look, when people give speeches, not every fact is always absolutely accurate," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told CNN's Piers Morgan with aw-shucks candor at the Tampa convention.
Hey, we are (with apologies to Claude Rains) just as "shocked, shocked" as anybody to discover that there is deception under way on the campaign trail.
But why settle for that when the stakes are so high? Why not let voters decide for themselves? The naysayers of fact-check journalism make the mistake of underestimating voters. For their part, we say to voters: Caveat emptor. They must invest some time in becoming better consumers of political information.
That's where we come in.
A fan letter to PolitiFact from Paul Levin of Woodstock, Ill., put it this way: "Your unbiased checking and analysis is paramount to helping Americans understand the detail 'devils.' Hopefully it will end with an election that will honestly result in a true majority-rule democracy."
Which brings us back to Mr. Newhouse, the Romney pollster. He has it all wrong. Fact-check journalists aren't trying to dictate how he should run the campaign. We are not the ones demanding accuracy in politics. We'll just publish what we find.
Then, fellow citizens, it's over to you.
Neil Brown is the editor the Tampa Bay Times, which owns PolitiFact.
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