Oh, Those Pesky Truth Tellers
During a breakfast at the Republican National Convention, Neil Newhouse, pollster for Mitt Romney, made public what a lot of journalists already had figured out.
“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” Newhouse said.
Newhouse was feeling a little prickly after numerous reporters had declared utterly false a Romney ad claiming that President Barack Obama had gutted the welfare reform law.
Newhouse’s insistence that the truth is expendable echoed the mood of a growing number of conservative candidates and bloggers who’ve made a hobby of scoffing at fact checkers. They particularly loathe PolitiFact, which was launched in 2007 by the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, to rate the accuracy of claims made by elected officials and their surrogates.
PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its relentless pursuit of truth. The Pulitzer board praised its use of “probing reporters and the power of the World Wide Web to examine more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters.” As of this week, PolitiFact has posted more than 6,000 Truth-O-Meter stories, and it now partners with reporters in 11 states.
The right — increasingly unhappy with the bright, shiny light on numerous Republican lies — has taken to attacking PolitiFact as a tool for the left. This is news to all the Democrats who’ve had to put out PolitiFact’s virtual flames dancing around their own ankles.
Here in Ohio, where The Plain Dealer partners with PolitiFact, a right-wing blogger went so far as to look up the voting records of some of the newspaper’s editors and reporters. Alas, they have voted in Democratic primaries. Conspiracy!
Of course, these same journalists also practice various religions, volunteer for charities and, in a few instances, even dared to become parents. All of these life experiences inform them as human beings and working journalists. This is as true today as it was for journalists 100 years ago. The difference is that we can now mine election board websites to find out where and when a journalist votes. From that, lazy bloggers weave tales of imaginary motives, which is much easier than taking their own side to task.
That brings me back to the right-wing blogger in Ohio. He failed to mention that The Plain Dealer — neither owned nor controlled by the PolitiFact journalists — endorsed the Republican candidate for governor in 2010 and supported the Republican-backed law, overwhelmingly defeated in last fall’s referendum, that would have eliminated the collective bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio.
Here’s what I know from personal experience: PolitiFact has made some campaigns more honest and some politicians better in their jobs.
I’m probably the only journalist in the country privy to Democratic senators’ private discussions about PolitiFact, simply because I’m the only one married to one of them. This is an awkward thing for me to admit, but it’s important to disclose: Though my husband has earned mostly “True” and “Mostly True” PolitiFact rulings, he has not escaped unscathed. You can bet I heard about that, too.
That’s a big reason I remain a fan of PolitiFact. It’s not because I like public reprimands of my husband but because PolitiFact changes how some elected officials and candidates frame their messages and communicate with constituents.
In countless strategy discussions, the question looms: Will this pass the PolitiFact test?
Translation: Are we telling the truth?
It really is this simple:
If you care about being honest with voters, you’re going to be more vigilant about the truth and recalibrate what you say after PolitiFact takes you to task.
If you think voters are idiots, you’ll keep repeating lies no matter how many fact checkers prove you aren’t telling the truth.
In 2008, I interviewed PolitiFact’s editor, Bill Adair, after his staff had posted its 500th Truth-O-Meter rating. He told me then that it had taken time for him and his reporters to own their hard-earned authority.
“We were scared into a ‘false balance’ in the face of critics saying, ‘You guys are biased,'” Adair said. “It took us a while to find our voice and realize that once you have solid reporting, you should draw conclusions. It’s taken us a while to be courageous enough to say, ‘Facts are facts, and this candidate is wrong.'”
Last week, Tampa Bay Times Editor Neil Brown responded to recent criticism of PolitiFact with an op-ed, titled “You can handle the truth.”
“Today there is more fact-check journalism under way than ever before,” he wrote. “Reporters at Factcheck.org (one of the earliest and most credible initiatives), the Washington Post Fact Checker and other newsrooms are diving deep into the claims of politicians, asking the most basic question: Is it true?
“Why would there be a backlash against that? It’s all about power.”
He’s got that exactly right.
The only thing I’d add is that fact checkers, such as PolitiFact, can change the electoral equation — with your help.
Armed with the truth, the most powerful person in any campaign is you, the voter.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.