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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.