Saturday, October 25th, 2014

PolitiFact Virginia responds to the state GOP

On Tuesday, the Republican Party of Virginia sent an "open letter to the commonwealth" accusing PolitiFact Virginia of being biased against the GOP in our rulings.

We disagree.

The party takes issue with the fact that 26 of our last 36 rulings have concerned Republican candidates and elected officials. But Virginia is largely controlled by Republican politicians. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general belong to the party, as do eight of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both houses of the General Assembly are run by Republicans. In addition, the GOP fielded four candidates in its primary for the U.S. Senate this spring and sponsored three debates between them. Democrats, in contrast, handed their nomination to an unopposed Tim Kaine.

So it’s no surprise that during the first half of this year, we spent most of our time rating Republican statements.

We don't try to match every Truth-O-Meter item on a Republican with one on a Democrat. And when a Republican gets a False rating, PolitiFact Virginia is not obliged to assign a False rating to a Democrat.

We don’t operate that way. PolitiFact is not about mathematical balance between the parties in our ratings. We’re about making calls on the accuracy of political claims. We have met with both the Republicans and the Democrats about  their concerns with our rulings because we believe in an open dialogue and in doing what we can to get the story right.

At the end of the day, our responsibility is not to please politicians or political parties. It’s to you, the reader.

Note: The following column ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on July 15

PolitiFact’s top priority is helping readers make sense of claims

By Warren Fiske
PolitiFact Virginia.com

We warn reporters interviewing for jobs at PolitiFact Virginia that our work involves some occasional confrontation -- although that’s not because we go looking for it.

We don’t want a hot shot who loves the fight and boasts about slamming phones down on press secretaries. We’re look for journalists who will breathe deeply say, "It’s not the favorite part of my job," and describe instances where they stood their ground and kept relationships alive.

Last week illustrated that challenge.

On Tuesday, the Republican Party of Virginia, in concert with George Allen’s U.S. Senate campaign, issued "an open letter to the commonwealth" accusing us of bias and urging GOP officials and candidates to stop talking to us.

We’re not happy about the charge, but we stand by the fairness of our work. We also take solace in the fact that an official with Democrat Tim Kaine’s U.S. Senate campaign has told us three times this year that the Kaine camp thinks we’re biased towards Allen.

In the end, our mission is not to make politicians happy. It’s to hold them accountable for their words.

We’re not going to issue a point-by-point response to a lengthy report that the party says proves our bias. But we will offer a few important observations.

The GOP takes issue with the fact that 26 of our last 37 rulings have concerned Republican candidates and elected officials. But Virginia is largely controlled by Republican politicians. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general belong to the party, as do eight of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both houses of the General Assembly are run by Republicans.

In addition, the GOP fielded four candidates in its primary for the U.S. Senate this spring and sponsored three debates among the candidates. The Democrats, in contrast, handed their nomination to unopposed Kaine.

So it’s no surprise that during the first half of the year, we spent most of our time rating Republican statements. We follow the action.

We do not try match every Truth-O-Meter item on a Republican with one on a Democrat. We are not obliged to assign a False rating to a Democrat just because we gave one to a Republican. PolitiFact Virginia is not about mathematical balance between parties in our ratings. We’re about making calls on political statements that are in the news.

We makes no claims of being infallible. When we mistakes, we correct them. In recent months, we held separate meetings with officials from the Allen and Kaine campaigns to discuss their concerns about us. We believe in open dialogue because it helps us get the story right.

PolitiFact Virginia does not keep running tallies of our stories because we try to focus on the work in front of us. Umpire focuses on the play at hand, not the calls they made throughout the game.

But in moments of introspection last week, we did take the time to run some numbers. We’ve run 205 Truth-O-Meters since PolitiFact Virginia started in October 2010 -- 60 percent on Republican claims and 40 percent on Democrat claims.

After gathering a full list of our fact-check items, we assigned 5 for a True, 4 for a Mostly True, 3 for a Half True, 2 for a Mostly False, 1 for a False, and zero for a Pants on Fire. The average rating for each Democratic claim we have reviewed is 2.9, the average rating for Republicans was 2.8.

In its statement, the GOP said PolitiFact is a departure from the "Richmond Times-Dispatch’s long history of fair and responsible political coverage." Campaigns have increasingly mastered those old ways by controlling access to candidates and the release of information. The new era of fact-checking services such as PolitiFact takes politicians and campaign advisers out of the comfort zone. And at its core, the GOP argument that PolitiFact is a departure from our political coverage is flawed: PolitiFact is a strong supplement to our traditional political reporting.

Campaigns see fact-checkers as valuable but unreliable ammunition. The advertising wars have barely begun this year, and PolitiFact Virginia’s findings already have been cited repeatedly in TV commercials benefitting Allen and Kaine.

On the same day the GOP denounced us, the Allen campaign cited our research in a news release that criticized Kaine for cutting support to state colleges when he was governor from 2006 to 2010. The Republican Party of Virginia posted the release on its website.

There’s a lot at stake this election year. Virginia is a swing state and its vote could be crucial in determining the next president and the fragile partisan control of the U.S. Senate.

Our top goal will be helping readers assess the accuracy of claims in the coming ads by Kaine, Allen and third-party groups. We’ll also monitor Kaine-Allen debates, including one Saturday in Hot Springs. It’s unfortunate that the state GOP has decided not to answer PolitiFact’s questions just as the campaign is heating up.

We’re committed to publishing Ad Watches for the presidential race. PolitiFact’s national team will assess these commercials, and we’ll continue to encapsulate their work in The Times-Dispatch.

In the coming months, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are expected to spend a lot of time in Virginia. We’ll be interested in any statements they make that are specific to our state, but, for the most part, we’ll leave coverage of the presidential candidates to the PolitiFact national team.

It’ll be challenging to keep up. PolitiFact Virginia has three journalists -- two full time, one part time -- and our fact-checks take quite a bit of time because of the research involved. We constantly seek ways to work faster so we can cast a wider net for readers. But with the stakes so high, we cannot sacrifice precision.

During this busy political season, we welcome comments, feedback and ideas about statements we should fact fact-check. And we will report back to you occasionally about our work.

PolitiFact Virginia’s goal is to improve public debate by informing readers about important issues. We don’t ask you to agree with all of our rulings, but we think the depth of research in our stories can help you discuss and make decisions about those issues.

We don’t work for politicians. We work for you.