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How to Beat the Fact-Checkers

Politicians have figured it out: When caught in a lie, attack the truth cops.

One major subplot of the summer campaign season began when the Post's Fact Checker column handed the Obama campaign four Pinocchios for calling Romney a "corporate raider [who] shipped jobs to China and Mexico." The vetters argued that Bain Capital's investments in outsourcing firms came after Romney claimed he left the company in February 1999. Yet on the same day, a lengthy investigation by another Post reporter showed that Romney had invested in outsourcing firms well before that point. That set off a controversy over when exactly Romney left Bain: After I reported that Securities and Exchange Commission documents listed him as being involved well into 2001, other outlets picked up the story, and the Romney campaign was forced to argue that signing SEC filings and being listed as managing director, president, and CEO of the company did not mean he was involved with Bain deals in any way.

If fact-checking comes to be seen as merely another front in routine political warfare, that perception threatens the whole enterprise.

By this time, it was clear that the Obama and Romney operations had each come to see the fact-checkers the same way candidate Mandel did in Ohio: not as arbiters whose verdicts must be heeded, but as participants in the ever-roiling political tussle. The Obama campaign released a six-page letter challenging the fact-checkers' findings on the outsourcing claim, while the Romney campaign put out a TV spot that charged Obama with bending the truth, and demanded an apology.

This is no small matter: If fact-checking comes to be seen as merely another front in routine political warfare, that perception threatens the whole enterprise. To judge credibility, the fact-checkers must be regarded as credible judges. But each time they are pulled into a scuffle with politicians, they can look more like political actors to the public—an assumption that especially benefits those politicians who lie with the greatest abandon.

That's particularly ironic because the fact-checkers go out of their way to not appear the least bit partisan—none of the three sites will offer a verdict on which candidate lies more, or with greater panache. "I try to avoid being quoted saying either side has more falsehoods than the other," Adair says. As of July, the Post's Pinocchio tracker did show Obama with a slightly lower average number of Pinocchios than Romney—but this ranking was based only on the statements the column happened to review. (Michele Bachmann had the highest average for the 2012 primary campaign.) That same month, PolitiFact noted that of the Romney statements it had examined, 31 percent were true or mostly true, 17 percent were false, and 13 percent had earned a "pants on fire." Obama fared better, with 46 percent of his claims rated true or mostly true, 15 percent false, and only 5 percent "pants on fire."

But with the fact-checking outfits knocking both candidates and declining to explicitly compare their relative slipperiness, it might actually be easier for politicians to weather Pinocchios, pants-on-fire ratings, and whatnot. In the end, the flood of vetting fosters the they-all-do-it impression that gives cover to pols who prevaricate the most. One might argue that, say, Romney's untruths have been more foundational than Obama's (such as when he asserted there had been "no new jobs" created under Obama), but with all the Pinocchios flying about, such a distinction can be lost. The major incentive for lying—to score a political point—remains unchanged.

With the news cycle moving at Twitter speed, a candidate snared in a lie only has to wait a few moments for the media to move on.

That's in part because fact-checking has remained its own ghetto—or, as Adair prefers to call it, an "elite specialization." "I am a supplement to political coverage, not a replacement," Kessler says. "I can go on for 2,000 words to examine one phrase. It's hard to do that on a daily story." And unlike the beat reporters, adds Adair, he and his team don't have to fret about maintaining access to campaign sources. Day-to-day reporting, by contrast, remains focused on the who's up/who's down, gaffe-du-jour, rubber-and-glue game of the campaign trail. This summer, I suggested to a well-regarded reporter covering Romney that it might be worth asking the candidate about a particularly bogus claim he had been making: "With Obamacare fully installed, government will come to control half the economy, and we will have effectively ceased to be a free-enterprise society." I had written about the charge—quoting one economist who called it "ridiculous" and another who said, "This analysis is so stupid it is hard to know where to begin"—and FactCheck.org subsequently dubbed it "patently false and misleading," while Kessler handed it four Pinocchios.

But the reporter, caught up in the spectacle of Romney's latest bus tour, hadn't heard of the remark, nor any of the vetting. With the news cycle moving at Twitter speed, a candidate snared in a lie only has to wait a few moments for the media to move on. The sting fades quickly.

In the weeks following my conversation with the reporter, Romney did not repeat his outlandish claim. Had the fact-checkers derailed the charge? There was no telling. But after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, his campaign released a statement from a surrogate noting that Obama favored a "government-centered society" with "government-rationed healthcare." FactCheck.org and PolitiFact had each previously stated that it was inaccurate to refer to Obamacare as rationing. The Romney camp didn't care.

But the campaign was paying close attention to the vetters in one way—as a convenient supply of ammunition. When it zapped out a press release accusing Obama of hurling "discredited distortions" about Romney's Bain record, it prominently noted its sources: Kessler and FactCheck.org.

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