Editors' note: With Paul Ryan letting loose a string of whoppers at the GOP convention, Newsweek admitting it doesn't verify the accuracy of facts cited by its writers, and a top Romney aide defiantly proclaiming, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," political fact-checking has been a hot topic this campaign season. For our September/October issue, David Corn took an in-depth look at how the verification industry plays into the political lying game—and whether it makes any difference.
As Mitt Romney was buttoning up the Republican nomination this past spring, he addressed the annual convention of the American Society of News Editors in the cavernous ballroom of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, DC. He blasted President Obama for breaking a "promise" to keep unemployment below 8 percent—a charge that had previously earned Romney three Pinocchios from the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column. He also slammed the president for "apologizing for America abroad"—an accusation that PolitiFact had months earlier branded a "pants on fire" lie. And he accused Obama of adding "nearly as much public debt as all the prior presidents combined" (a statement already judged "an exaggeration" by FactCheck.org) and of cutting $500 million from Medicare (a "false" assertion according to PolitiFact).
A politician mangling the truth is hardly news. Yet what was notable about this moment was that the candidate felt no compunction about appearing before more than 1,500 journalists and repeating whoppers that their own colleagues had so roundly debunked. Nor was Romney challenged about any of these untruths when it came time to ask questions. He was able to peddle a string of officially determined falsehoods before a crowd of newspaper editors—repeat: a crowd of newspaper editors—and face absolutely no consequences. The uncomfortable question for the press: With the news cycle overwhelmed by the headline-of-the-nanosecond, and with politicians ignoring or openly challenging the truth cops, how much does the much-heralded political fact-checking industry really matter?
Big Media's push for independent and ongoing verification of newsmakers' statements stretches back to the mid-2000s, when many news organizations were on the defensive over their failure to vet the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania launched FactCheck.org, with veteran CNN reporter Brooks Jackson at the helm, in 2003. PolitiFact, created by the St. Petersburg Times, and the Washington Post's Fact Checker followed four years later.
At the Post, reporter Michael Dobbs had proposed creating the Fact Checker feature because he believed, as he put it in a New America Foundation report, DC reporting had "strayed away from the truth-seeking tradition" and become too hung up on the "he said, she said aspect." Dobbs, who as a member of the paper's national security team had seen what he called the "weapons of factual destruction" up close, said journalists were "permitting presidential candidates and others to get away with sometimes outrageous falsehoods."
On the face of it, the fact-checking shops have thrived. Glenn Kessler, who inherited the Post column from Dobbs, now draws about 1 million page views a month. PolitiFact has set up sites in 11 states to zero in on local pols; it employs 35 full-time journalists. FactCheck.org has inspired FlackCheck.org, which uses humor to debunk spin. But as these operations expand in profile and size, are politicians any less inclined to distort and dissemble?
Increasingly, campaigns treat the fact-checkers not as arbiters whose verdicts must be heeded, but as participants in the ever-roiling political tussle.
"I'm often asked this," Kessler says, "and my response is, 'I don't write for the politicians. I write for the voters.' The politicians will twist or spin information if they believe it will advance their political interests. With Romney, for instance, no matter how many times we say it is not true that Barack Obama apologized for America, he will not change that line. For his political interests, it's a good line."
Not all politicians, Kessler notes, have been so nonchalant. Back during the 2000 campaign, when he was fact-checking the presidential debates for the Post, Al Gore campaign aides "freaked out," anxiously calling him ahead of debates to explain the facts that Gore intended to deploy—and making changes in response to his objections. (At the time, Gore was fighting the charge that he was a serial fabricator.) The Bush campaign, by contrast, couldn't have cared less about the fact-checking push. Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, "laughed about it," Kessler recalls.
On Capitol Hill, too, some members have shown more respect for the fact-checkers than others. A senior Republican once told Kessler that he had closely reviewed his columns on health care to ensure he would not repeat claims judged false. In response to a controversial PolitiFact ruling blasting Democrats for claiming that the Republican House budget would end Medicare—rather than end it "as we know it"—Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) changed how he referred to the GOP plan. Media fact-checking, Brown once said publicly, "makes us a little more cautious about what we repeat that we've heard." (That same Medicare ruling, though, fueled a high-octane feud between PolitiFact and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who attacked the fact-checkers' conclusion as a product of GOP spin and declared PolitiFact "irrelevant.")
Brown's appreciation for fact-checking may be heightened because he is in a tough campaign against state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican who has racked up a series of poor ratings from PolitiFact, including a "pants on fire" for calling Brown "one of the main DC politicians responsible for Ohio jobs moving to China." Mandel responded to that rating not by changing his tune, but by going after the fact-checkers, insisting that not only was the claim "100 percent truth" but that he would repeat it "again and again."
And what of the 2012 presidential campaign? Have Obama and Romney been swayed by the work of the professional fact-checkers? Bill Adair, who runs PolitiFact, points to a few instances—just a few—when Obama shifted rhetorical direction in response to fact-check rulings. In 2008, he ceased saying that gas prices were "higher than ever" after PolitiFact reported that this was false when accounting for inflation. Later, when the president was pushing for health care reform, PolitiFact challenged his statement that consumers could keep their current plans under the new law. (Market upheaval, it contended, might knock out some existing insurance policies.) The president then tweaked his language, saying that nothing in the bill would force consumers to switch, but he has since relapsed and used the original formulation.
"If we say the sky is blue, we would get a 'half-true' because we didn't give the full explanation that the sky is blue because of chemical reactions that occurred in the atmosphere a million years ago."
Asked for an example of Romney altering an assertion or ad in response to a fact-check, Adair, after a long pause, remarks, "I don't recall one offhand…They have quoted us a lot—when it boosts their case."
Kessler says the rise of fact-checking has led to political marketers striving for "a modicum of truthiness" in their ads—such as including citations. But, he adds, that hardly means the spots are any more accurate. When he examined an ad produced by the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity that accused the president of spending billions of stimulus dollars for green-energy jobs "overseas," he found that the spot had blatantly misrepresented the news stories it cited. (Four Pinocchios!)
Whether or not they change their tune in response to the fact-checkers, the Obama and Romney organizations do spend time tending to them. The Obama campaign has assigned a deputy press secretary to be its point person for fact-checkers' questions. Several staffers at Romney HQ do the same. Both campaigns complain about being overwhelmed by the requests that flood their inboxes, and they gripe about the ensuing judgments. "If we say the sky is blue, we would get a 'half-true' because we didn't give the full explanation that the sky is blue because of chemical reactions that occurred in the atmosphere a million years ago," one aide grouses.