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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The land of punditry, of which I am a resident, has grown from a relatively small group of people expected to research their opinions to a vast number of humans willing to share whatever’s on their minds.

To a large extent, this is a good thing. More voices, more ways to look at the world.

However, as the definition of punditry has expanded, so has its apparent tolerance for misinformation. Most of us have read a paragraph or heard a television soundbite that renders us head-shaking mouth breathers. How in the world did they say that with a straight face, we wonder.

Some pundits still clutch their guts when they discover they’ve made a mistake. As is the case with many columnists, if I get a name or statistic wrong, my whole day is ruined. Some would call us dinosaurs, but at the risk of coming off as self-serving, I would argue that you want us to worry just that much because so much is at stake. We write to persuade you to think our way about something. We owe you the courtesy of good intentions, and that includes research and reporting.

A lot of pundits flick away facts like gnats. To them, the success of an opinion piece — written or spoken — is measured by applause and the number of “likes” and “shares” on social media. The ultimate goal: attention. Doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. They just want to be the pundit everyone’s talking about.

For the most part, pundits have gotten a pass. Who cares if they’re lying? It’s not as if anyone’s taking them seriously anymore.

The Tampa Bay TimesPolitiFact cares, and its editors and reporters know that much of the public does, too. So this week, it launched PunditFact to fact check today’s opinion makers.

I was invited to attend a planning meeting a few weeks before PunditFact went live Nov. 4. What most impressed me was how editors there pressed us for criticism. They know what’s coming.

PunditFact is bound to be wildly unpopular with pundits, which only illuminates how badly we need it.

I’ve made no secret of my high regard for PolitiFact, which was created by journalist Bill Adair after the 2004 presidential race. Being married to a U.S. senator whose statements have been analyzed many times by PolitiFact, I know constant scrutiny by the Pulitzer Prize-winning operation can affect how politicians speak and how they campaign.

I should note that some journalists I respect, including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, don’t share my view of PolitiFact. A longtime critic of its methodology, she once accused the fact checker as living “after death, like a zombie, eating our national brains.” It pained me to see that she had a starring role in PunditFact‘s promotional video, but I was not surprised.

PunditFact defines a pundit as “someone who offers analysis or opinions on the news, particularly politics and public policy. One can engage in punditry by writing, blogging or appearing on radio or TV. A pundit is not an elected official, not a declared candidate nor anyone in an official capacity with a political party, campaign or government.”

PunditFact has wasted no time in tiptoeing through the minefield. For example:

Glenn Beck said Barack Obama “knew half of the population of the United States would lose … their health insurance.”

Rating: Pants on fire.