Washington — The closer the United States gets to its November elections, the more heated the rhetoric between the candidates becomes, and the temptation to distort or even invent “facts” to disparage an opponent or enhance their own standings increases.
According to fact checkers in the U.S. news media, nearly all candidates appear to have been guilty of at least telling “half-truths” on the U.S. campaign trail, and they have been publicly called to account.
The Washington Post blog The Fact Checker says its mission is to be a “truth squad” for statements by political figures and government officials “that cry out” for scrutiny, particularly on U.S., international or local issues that the blog considers important.
Candidates or political action committees that plan a speech or political ad that takes an opponent’s statements out of context, cites unverified or unrelated data or contradicts earlier statements should take warning.
“We will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various ‘code words’ used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth,” says the Post’s blog.
Dedicating full-time journalists to analyzing and rating candidate and advertising claims in part responds to criticisms of U.S. news media coverage of recent elections, which have often used political advocates to tell audiences what to think and how to interpret campaign statements, rather than offering their own unbiased critiques and analysis.
News coverage of the 2008 U.S. elections prominently featured former politicians, campaign managers and others who had vested interests in the outcome of the contests, in a sense turning the journalist’s role of informing the audience over to partisan hacks who made little effort to even appear objective to their audiences.
“If I ever write an autobiography, it’ll be titled, Waiting for People to Lie to Me,” said Glenn Kessler, the editor behind the Washington Post’s blog. In a January 11 interview with the C-SPAN television network, the veteran diplomatic and political reporter-turned-fact-checker said it is “in the nature to kind of embellish or exaggerate, or if you want, particularly in politics or on Wall Street … if you want to spin things your own way.”
The politicians might or might not be deliberately lying, he said, but “if a politician says the same thing over and over again, even when it has been pointed out that’s untrue ... they know that they’re saying something untrue.”
Kessler’s recent posts include analyzing a chart that compares President Obama’s job-creation record with that of likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and Romney’s claim that Obama’s financial stimulus program helped to hire public sector workers, rather than those in the private sector.
For every statement or claim that Kessler checks into, he rates it according to his “Pinocchio Test,” in reference to the fictional wooden marionette whose nose grew whenever he told a lie.
The test ranges from One Pinocchio (“Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”) to Four Pinocchios (“Whoppers.”), with purely truthful statements and claims getting the “Geppetto Checkmark,” named after the honest woodcutter who had fashioned the doll in the story.
The Pinocchio Test is not scientific, Kessler told C-SPAN. “It’s just a way to kind of track where people stand.”
Bill Adair, editor of the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact and winner of a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, developed and trademarked the “Truth-O-Meter,” a similar ratings system, but with more categories, ranging from “True” or “Mostly True” to “Pants on Fire!” for what he classifies as outright lies. Adair also analyzes whether a statement is a “flip,” or reversal from a candidate’s previously stated position.
“We’re doing something that we think is really important journalism,” Adair said, and he said his website is “an experiment that grew out of my own guilt as a political reporter that I had not done enough fact-checking when I covered the 2004 presidential campaign.”
Along with assessing claims and statements on the state and national levels, PolitiFact also tracks how well Obama and members of Congress are fulfilling campaign promises.
The website discredited comedian Jon Stewart’s 2011 claim that Fox News viewers are "the most consistently misinformed," Republican claims that Obama’s 2010 health care legislation was a U.S. government takeover of the health care industry, and recent Democratic accusations that the Republicans had voted to end Medicare health assistance to the poor.
Speaking with ABC News’ Top Line in August 2011, Adair said that when PolitiFact got its start in 2008, it focused mainly on the presidential candidates, but its scope has since expanded to include news media pundits, who currently are “some of the voices that have the biggest bang” in American politics, despite the fact that they are not elected or accountable to voters.
“We actually do more fact-checking of pundits and talk show hosts at PolitiFact than I think any other news organization does,” Adair said, ranging from the left-leaning MSNBC network and its host Rachel Maddow to Fox News and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly. “We put them to the Truth-O-Meter just like we do everybody else,” he said.