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.