Washington’s top three fact-checkers miss Michele Bachmann. The Minnesota congresswoman provided a daily fare of misstatements, hyperbole, and falsehoods during her brief run for the Republican presidential nomination. “Santorum is catching up,” says Brooks Jackson, the veteran journalist who established and now runs FactCheck.org.
Sitting down with Jackson for a fact-finding lunch, Bill Adair, creator of PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler nod in agreement, though they’re reluctant to quantify any one politician’s propensity to bend the truth. All agree that the staff of GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum rarely if ever returned their calls checking his claims.
Journalism in the 24/7 news cycle of scoops on Twitter is increasingly the province of young reporters. The three who check for truth in the news qualify as grizzled veterans. Media outlets such as CNN have installed fact-checking units, but these three men remain the most reliable and constant.
A viral e-mail claiming that a 3.8-percent sales tax on every home would pay for health-care reform? Nope. Obama’s claim that he’s the fourth-best President? An overstatement at best. Claims that the proposed gas pipeline from Canada will lower gasoline prices? Forget about it.
“We compete,” Kessler says, “but as colleagues.”
All three agree that Post columnist David Broder started the fact-checking movement in the late ’80s when he called on reporters to check the veracity of political ads.
Jackson, 70, began FactCheck.org in 2003 under the auspices of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. He’d been an investigative reporter for AP, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN, where he began debunking bogus political ads. He’s backed up by five staffers and writes from his home in St. Mary’s County. He tends to offer up essays rather than simple ratings.
Adair wrote his senior thesis at Arizona State University in 1985 about the need for the media to check facts in political ads. In 2009, his PolitiFact won a Pulitzer for doing it. He cut his reporting teeth at the St. Petersburg Times, came to DC in 1997 to cover politics and aviation, and stayed. In 2007, he started PolitiFact for the Tampa Bay Times, owned by the Poynter Institute. “We wanted to take Brooks’s solid journalism and package it in a webby way,” says Adair, 50. Staffed by five in DC and 30 in ten states, Adair’s Truth-O-Meter puts a score on claims—“Pants on Fire” being the worst.
Kessler is a longtime Post employee. He rose from reporter and editor to diplomatic correspondent. In 2011, he revived the Fact Checker, which Michael Dobbs had started for the duration of the 2008 campaign. Kessler, 52, has one assistant. He dissects claims and bestows “Pinocchios”—four being the worst: “I gave three Pinocchios to the President for misusing a citation from PolitiFact in his first campaign ad.”
Adair has the edge on sending his fact-checking model viral. He’s seeding PolitiFact projects in states and localities. “Why not check mayors?” he says. “City-council members?”
Are these efforts forcing politicians to lie less? “My goal is not to change political behavior,” Jackson says. “Greeks invented demagoguery 3,000 years ago. We just want to give open-minded voters some place to go for an honest way to assess all these claims.”
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.