The emergence of fact-checkers is one of the major stories of the 2012 presidential campaign, with the self-appointed arbiters of truth inserting themselves into all of the thorniest issues.
The Web-based, news-affiliated sites have clearly had an impact. Both President Obama and his likely GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, and their campaigns regularly cite the most prominent arbiters in their ads and on the stump, and reporters turn to the fact-checkers for the final word when the two campaigns are sparring.
Along the way, the three major fact-check organizations have both thrilled and ticked off the presidential campaigns, both of which have shown that they are not above working the referees for more favorable rulings.
“I think the difference is the campaigns feel more compelled to provide documentary backup,” said Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s fact-checker, whose experience with fact-checking dates as far back as the 1992 presidential campaign when he was with Newsday. “They’re also more aggressive about defending what they say. And occasionally I will see candidates respond to things that we write. I will see Mitt Romney adjust his talking points to be more truthful. And President Obama, as well.”
Mr. Kessler awards “Pinocchios” - the more the truth is stretched, the more Pinocchios given. PolitiFact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times, has something it calls the “truth-o-meter,” which runs from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” The third group, FactCheck.org, is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and issues its rulings in scholarly language.
This week, Mr. Kessler and the others have been in the spotlight as the two presidential candidates spar over Mr. Romney’s business record. The Obama campaign claims Mr. Romney was in charge of Bain Capital when the firm was involved with companies that reportedly outsourced jobs overseas. The Romney campaign says he had left Bain by then, and points to the fact-checkers for backup.
Likewise, the Democratic National Committee sent out an email blast this week that simply reprinted a piece from Mr. Kessler, where he awarded Republican claims about Mr. Obama’s stimulus package creating jobs overseas three Pinocchios, out of a maximum of four.
But the would-be umpires also are taking fire.
The controversies have extended to the state level, where PolitiFact has essentially franchised itself by partnering with local newspapers to check state and local politicians’ claims.
That has drawn the ire of the Republican Party of Virginia, which this week issued an 86-page report criticizing PolitiFact Virginia, associated with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for allegedly targeting more Republicans and giving more critical ratings to GOP officials and groups than to Democrats.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to go this route,” said Dave Rexrode, executive director of the RPV. “We would have hoped that we would have come to an understanding where our elected officials and candidates could have a fair shake with PolitiFact, but that just could not be done.”
Rick Thornton, vice president of audience and content development for the paper, defended the outfit, saying it’s the media’s job to ask questions.
“The reaction, while unfortunate, is not going to change the way we do business,” he said.
Indeed, much of what the fact-checkers do is inherently judgment calls.
For example, PolitiFact Virginia will grade a politician’s words as true on their face, while other times will look for suggestive meanings that they say make factually true statements unfair.
Ray Allen, a longtime Virginia GOP consultant and adviser to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the entire process is inherently flawed.
“So much of what is getting fact-checked is opinion and political philosophy,” he said. “The fact-checkers are actively intervening in the campaigns. We’ve seen fact-checkers write things they clearly want to get in TV ads.”
Mr. Kessler, though, said it cuts both ways.
“Both sides - they either love us or hate us,” he said. “The Romney people are very happy to cite quotes about Obama, and the Obama people are very happy to cite quotes about Romney.”
PolitiFact’s national politics website has long been attacked by Republicans as biased, but also has drawn some scorn from Democrats - particularly after it took liberals to task for arguing that Republicans voted to end Medicare, naming the claim as its 2011 “lie of the year.”
Editor and creator Bill Adair said the site, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2008 election coverage, strives to be fair, but is bound to catch flak from both sides.
“We make each call individually,” he said. “The reality is that people are so passionate about their team in politics that they are often going to complain about ratings that don’t go their way.”
However, a February 2011 analysis by Smart Politics, a nonpartisan blog run by Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota, concluded that the site was much harsher when grading the truthfulness of conservatives than liberals.
The blog examined more than 500 PolitiFact stories over the previous year and found that 74 of the 98 claims that earned “false” or “pants on fire” ratings were made by Republicans.
Mr. Ostermeier said this week that while the site may not intentionally target Republicans, he thinks there is a “selection bias” at PolitiFact and among other fact-checkers that makes them more likely to question statements that contradict their personal views and place less scrutiny on those that don’t.
He said such sites need to better explain why they choose certain statements for examination and ignore other ones, although most chalk it up to a matter of public interest and news judgment.
“Each politician has hundreds and hundreds of statements, and you’re picking a very limited amount,” he said. “It is incumbent upon them to try to articulate what they are going to fact-check.”
While fact-checkers have risen to prominence since the 2008 election cycle, Mr. Ostermeier said he thinks the next trend could be websites set up to fact-check the fact-checkers.
Mr. Adair said he thinks increased scrutiny is not a bad thing and helps to keep everyone involved on their toes.
“Fact-checking helps everybody,” he said. “I think it empowers democracy by telling voters what’s true and what’s not, and I think it holds politicians accountable for what they say.”
“If we do, it causes some consternation among us,” Mr. Kessler said.