Daniel Rubin: Just the facts: Checking the pols

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2012 file photo, former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Clinton's convention speech nominating President Barack Obama for a second term left Piers Morgan of CNN star-struck, "Already the best speech of either convention," the prime-time talk show host tweeted. "An oratorical genius right up there with Churchill, Kennedy, MLK and Mandela." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2012 file photo, former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Clinton's convention speech nominating President Barack Obama for a second term left Piers Morgan of CNN star-struck, "Already the best speech of either convention," the prime-time talk show host tweeted. "An oratorical genius right up there with Churchill, Kennedy, MLK and Mandela." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (AP)
Posted: September 11, 2012

When did fact checking get so sexy?

I arrived home the other night to catch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert going on about the rising class of sharpshooters who aim to separate substance from spin.

The factcheckstapo, Colbert called them, as he dismissed those who balked at a few things Paul Ryan told the GOP convention in Tampa.

Stewart, for his part, accused the entire Fourth Estate of falling down on the essential job. "When did fact checking and journalism go their separate ways?" he asked former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

"Sexy?" asked Eugene Kiely, wearily. He directs FactCheck.org's home office at the University of Pennsylvania. It was after noon Thursday when I reached him, and he'd just gotten up. He'd worked until 4 a.m. reality-testing Bill Clinton's speech.

The piece he helped produce was headlined "Our Clinton Nightmare." The former president's stem-winder had sent Kiely and company in circles. They chased down 20 possible stretches but found little to write about.

The next evening provided more opportunity: They cried foul on eight of Vice President Biden's and President Obama's claims.

This is a crazy time for the industry that proofs the probity of political statements. The conventions have ended. The debates come next. The GNP of a small country is waiting to be spent on potentially spurious ads.

To watch a world of misstatement, FactCheck employs six full-time staffers and a rotation of students. At the conventions, someone was stationed in each hall, getting the jump on prepared remarks. The checkers then divvied up the major speeches, digging into each assertion of fact.

Not surprisingly, vice presidential speeches tend to create the most work, Kiely said, because "they usually are the ones who are the attack dogs. They want to make the presidential candidates seem above the fray."

Clinton proved difficult "because he is a policy wonk and he gets very specific," Kiely said. Gov. Christie, by comparison, was cake. "He spoke in very broad, general and philosophical terms. Lots of opinions, but he wasn't getting into very many facts on a federal level."

James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal last week attacked "fact-checking propagandists," saying "people who work as fact checkers have long dreamed of becoming writers and editors."

Actually, FactCheck employs vets of mainstream media. Kiely, a former Inquirer reporter and editor, came to the nonprofit from USA Today. Founder Brooks Jackson worked for the Journal and CNN. Deputy managing editor Robert Farley won a Pulitzer at the St. Petersburg Times.

The staff at its somewhat saucier rival PolitiFact, part of the Tampa Bay Times, has old-school credentials, too, including a Pulitzer for covering the 2008 election.

"What you need is the ability to do research, the ability to approach things with a skeptical mind, where you are willing to challenge any statement," Kiely said. "A journalism background helps - this is what we've always done. It isn't anything new."

The modern fact-checker movement probably began with the lefty journalist I.F. Stone in 1958, when he challenged the statements of Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb. (Teller said the danger of nuclear fallout was no worse than smoking a cigarette a month.)

It gained steam after the down-and-dirty ads of the 1988 presidential election, says Lucas Graves, who teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin and wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject. Remember Willie Horton? Dukakis in the tank?

As mass media have fragmented and news operations shed staff, political operatives have found opportunity and little risk in pushing the limits.

"Increasingly, it's possible for politicians to say different things to different audiences," Graves said. "We don't have three networks anymore that help establish the mainstream political consensus. Everyone has his own media, and that results in a much more divided public, choosing to believe different sets of facts."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

 

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