Firefighters, Fact-Checking and American Journalism
By Brooks Jackson
When I came to Annenberg and launched FactCheck.org in December 2003, I had a single research assistant and practically no competition. Now, nine years later, FactCheck.org has an excellent staff, and so many other journalists are fact-checking politicians that one media critic calls it “the ever-growing factchecking industry.”
So I think now is a good time to look back at the road we’ve traveled, and the road ahead.
Two questions arise. Are we doing any good? And where should we go from here?
My personal answers are: “Yes” — but not for reasons you might think, and “Onward” — provided fact-checkers avoid some potholes that I’ve noticed along the way.
Does Fact-Checking Matter?
Yes, we’re doing some good. That used to seem obvious to our fellow journalists, though lately some have expressed doubts.
Late in the 2004 campaign, the Washington Post ran an editorial under the headline, “Thank the Fact Checkers,” praising both us and the estimable Congressional Budget Office. “They may not have kept the political debate honest — who could? — but in very different ways each has helped make the campaign less dishonest than it might have been.”
Later, Time magazine’s website listed us as one of the “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without.” We came, alphabetically, right after Facebook and before Google. We were riding high.
But lately the mood has soured a bit.
A typical post-election piece carried the headline, “How Much Do Fact-Checkers Matter?“ The author reported finding a “broad consensus” among Romney campaign veterans, GOP operatives, Democratic strategists and Obama team members that “the analysis produced by the journalist fact-checkers didn’t matter and had no material effect on the presidential campaign.”
Maybe not — if by “campaign” you mean the candidates and their paid help. We had little effect on them, it’s true. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns were guilty of rampant and repeated dishonesty, undeterred by the “industry” of fact-checkers. For details, refer to our summary of campaign “Whoppers.”
Both sides did it without apology. President Obama himself admitted his campaign had “gone overboard” and made “mistakes,” but he offered no regrets or even disapproval. “You know, that happens in politics,” he said.
On the other side, Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, challenged by reporters to defend the campaign’s “most effective” (but false) ad, said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Both campaigns were happy to quote us as an authority — when we criticized their opponent. But when we criticized their own distortions and false claims, they ignored us, or pushed back with more bogus assertions.
At times I got the impression the campaign apparatchiks viewed it as a badge of honor to be called out for exaggerated or false claims. It was as though they believed they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t distort the opponent’s positions or blacken his personal character. Indeed, “that happens in politics.”
Blaming the Firefighter
But that doesn’t mean we are doing no good, or that we’ve failed in our mission. Complaining that fact-checkers failed to stop politicians from lying is like complaining that a firefighter failed to prevent an arsonist from starting a fire.
Furthermore, it seems to me that anyone who asks the very political operatives behind the 2012 falsehoods to rate our performance is pretty much interviewing the arsonists about the merits of the firefighters. We don’t write to impress politicians or their hirelings. We write to help the voters — and we don’t expect to get an invitation to dinners at the White House.
We can’t stop politicians from trying to bamboozle voters. But we can make voters harder to fool. I see a gratifying amount of evidence to show that we are doing that. For one thing, we get a steady stream of unsolicited testimonials from our readers. Here are just a few of those we’ve published in our weekly “Mailbag”:
FactCheck has been an invaluable tool to me this election season, and I very much wish more people would use it. I wish I’d known of your site before now.
Robert Mohr Pinellas Park, Fla.
Factual errors, misstatements, and summaries occur in every campaign, and our job as voters is to decide which ones matter to us. You’re not trying to do that for us, and I for one really appreciate it.
Susan Rati Lane (who was responding to readers who accuse us of false equivalency) Somerville, Mass.
I cannot begin to express my thanks to you and the Annenberg Foundation for your service. In these stressful political times, you guys keep me sane! Thanks again for your great work. Please don’t stop.
Scott Rucker Louisville, Ky.
To read more such testimonials, click the link below:
I want to thank everyone that helps run FactCheck.org. I’ll be honest, I haven’t cared about politics much, and a big reason for it is that it’s frustrating to deal with all the lies. … I’m ever so grateful for a website that is truly neutral. Thank you again, and I’ll be sure to pass this website on to as many people as I can.
L. Yang New York, N.Y.
[I] have been searching for something balanced and honest about the hard truths facing this nation and its economy. So, from the deepest part of my patriotic heart, THANK YOU for all that you and your organization do to present concise, digestible information for the concerned voters of this country.
Deborah Cates Davis, Calif.
Thank you so much for all your efforts to reveal the facts. In the muddled up, mixed up world of politics, it is so refreshing to know where to find the truth, not the partial truth or the sort of truth, but real nonpartisan facts.
Cindy Withrow Charleston, W.Va.
I want to thank the Factcheck.org webpage founders/administrators for giving me such a wonderful resource.
Dean Riley Chatham, Pa.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate the hard work you and your people do. Honesty is something that no longer exists in politics and I’m glad you keep it to “just the facts.”
Kathleen Norris Mishawaka, Ind.
I feel like I can come to this site and get the analysis that helps make voters like me have an informed vote that cuts through the political garbage that both sides sling. Again, thank you.
Dustin Slayer Ashland, Ky.
In addition to these testimonials, we now have some solid data as well. People who visited fact-checking websites during the 2012 campaign actually knew significantly more about the issues under discussion than those who didn’t.