When we launched PolitiFact in 2007, our biggest boost came from a competitor.
Our traffic in the first few days was pitifully low. But then we got a wonderful welcome from Brooks Jackson, the director of FactCheck.org, who sent an email to his readers welcoming us to the world of fact-checking. Our traffic soared.
It was a gracious gesture and a sign of the wonderful spirit of cooperation that continues today in the (much-larger) field of fact-checking. There are 162 active fact-checking sites around the world, according to the latest tally in the Duke Reporters’ Lab, and fact-checkers have our own association, the International Fact-Checking Network.
FactCheck.org turns 15 years old this week, so it’s a good moment to salute Brooks and his co-founder Kathleen Hall Jamieson for the important role they’ve played as pioneers in our movement.
Brooks was a fact-checker before fact-checking was cool, doing early work for CNN in the 1990s. Kathleen was a political scientist who spotted the importance of campaign TV ads in the 1980s, before others in her field – and also saw how those ads could exaggerate and distort the truth.
They started FactCheck.org in 2003, when internet journalism was still new. It was a bold and visionary step. Kathleen brought academic cred and the support of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Brooks brought journalistic chops and a lively voice. He wasn’t afraid to call the balls and strikes of the political discourse.
There had been a wave of fact-checking in the 1990s, but it had faded into a mush of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. Brooks carved a new niche in accountability journalism, showing that fact-checkers could (and should) declare when a statement was false while still remaining non-partisan.
"Our goal here can’t be to find truth — that’s a job for philosophers and theologians," he wrote when they launched. "What we can do here is sort through the factual claims being made between now and election day, using the best techniques of journalism and scholarship. And I can think of no better job for a journalist than holding politicians accountable for getting the facts right, regardless of their party or political philosophy."
Those words still resonate today. Happy 15th, FactCheck.org! The rest of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.
Bill Adair, the former editor of PolitiFact, is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University.