Without PunditFact, pundits stand uncorrected
WASHINGTON -- The staff of PunditFact flipped the script last week at the National Press Club. Instead of fact-checking pundits, we hosted a roundtable of talking heads to discuss how they operate on television, and how we affect (or don't affect) their lives.
Pundits punditing about PunditFact.
"I thought that was a brilliant idea when I first read about PunditFact. I thought that's great, we really need that," said Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and Meet the Press regular.
"But then I thought, No!" Parker continued, worried that she might get caught making a mistake by PunditFact's Truth-O-Meter. (She hasn't yet.)
"You get one little minutiae wrong, in a long drawn-out sentence," said ABC and CNN political commentator Donna Brazile, "and all of the sudden you become a verb, you get PunditFacted." (Brazile has been "PunditFacted" 12 times — 1 True, 6 Mostly True, 4 Half True and 1 False.)
First, it's cool to be a verb. But it's also cool that Parker and Brazile are aware of us, even if they're a bit afraid. PunditFact was launched in 2013 by the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with the Poynter Institute, the Democracy Fund and the Ford Foundation.
We spun off from PolitiFact, the fact-checking website the Times created in 2007 to sort out the truth in politics. PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for its fact-checking of the 2008 presidential election.
Our first year of fact-checking cable news talking heads, newspaper columnists and talk radio reveals just how much accuracy is becoming a luxury.
Let me give you an example. In 2014, PunditFact fact-checked somewhere around 300 claims, and about half rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire on our Truth-O-Meter.
I don't think many people would celebrate that track record. But what's worse is that those falsehoods rarely got corrected. We documented just seven cases where pundits admitted they goofed. That leaves 140 cases when they didn't.
Imagine if this newspaper corrected its errors less than 5 percent of the time. Or what if a football referee got the call wrong half the time but didn't even bother to check instant replay with the hope of getting it right?
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh recently blamed the measles outbreak on illegal immigrant children who came across the U.S. southern border in 2014, saying they weren't given medical examinations or vaccinations before entering the country. That's demonstrably false or, in PunditFact-speak, Pants on Fire wrong. Children were examined and were given vaccinations if need be.
Those children, by the way, came from countries with similar or higher vaccination rates than the United States. You can read all about it on PunditFact.com, but you didn't hear Limbaugh admit his mistake.
We obviously don't know in Limbaugh's case, but we put the question generically to Parker. She said she reached out to a producer friend of hers (she didn't name names) and asked.
The answer: Money.
"If you do a correction on television, if it takes a minute and a half, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars of network time," Parker said.
That's something to consider. Here's something else: Contrast Limbaugh's mistake to the criticism circling NBC's Brian Williams. Williams, if you somehow missed it, said on a few occasions that in the early days of the Iraq War he was on a Chinook helicopter that was forced down after taking RPG and small-arms fire. That, in fact, didn't happen, a mistake that Williams admits and attempted to apologize for.
Williams has been suspended by NBC News for six months. Limbaugh will be back on the radio across the country Monday.
I'm not saying Limbaugh deserves a suspension or that Williams doesn't. After all, Williams is a traditional news anchor while Limbaugh is a pundit in the purist sense — his credentials are that he has opinions and a platform to say them.
But make no mistake, both men influence the public debate.
A recent Pew survey found that 37 percent of people received news from NBC, compared to 8 percent who said they viewed Limbaugh as a news source. Two-thirds of respondents said they heard of Limbaugh.
Which brings us back to PunditFact. We launched in 2013 with the notion of having an open and honest dialogue with cable news channels, television pundits and others about the claims they make or spread.
The dream was for news and news analysis programs to take a page from the ESPN sports show Pardon the Interruption, where hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are corrected when they make mistakes, on air, at the end of the show.
But the numbers say that's not happening. Maybe it's money, like Parker's producer friend said. Maybe it's ego.
Back when the country was debating whether President Barack Obama was wrong for casually saluting a member of the military with a coffee cup in his hand, PunditFact fact-checked a claim from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that spoke to the notion that presidential saluting was a silly invention altogether.
She said that not even President Dwight Eisenhower, a retired five-star general, saluted the troops while president.
While we found many pictures proving that incorrect, Maddow was apathetic.
"I remain, as always, amazed by you," Maddow wrote to us.
Sure, you can argue it was a trivial point. But she's the one who made it. And it was wrong.
Tufts University recently completed a survey of journalists about our work. Eighty-five percent of the journalists surveyed said they had seen fact-checking of pundits and 56 percent found it "often useful." Better yet, 64 percent of respondents found PunditFact to be mostly or totally fair.
Looking to 2015, we hope to find ways to boost those numbers. We plan to keep correcting the record when we can — by relying on independent sources, finding primary documents and research, and connecting with trusted experts. And we'll do it without name-calling or partisan finger-pointing.
We'll also keep trying to work with the likes of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and others. We'll probably find some new allies and fact-check Parker along the way. We'll likely take some criticism, too.
After all, we're a verb now.
Aaron Sharockman is the editor of PunditFact.com. Contact him at [email protected] Follow @asharock.