It's that time of year, when presidential candidates' thoughts turn to misstatements of fact. But with more and more news outlets taking the pols to task for their public speeches and ads, might accuracy be gaining the upper hand? Brooks Jackson, director of factcheck.org, explains his quest to make the political landscape a more truthful place.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. With the Iowa caucus approaching like a tornado, the state is a churning urn of political advertising. Here's one from a group called Working 4 Working Families. [CLIP] MAN: This October, Maytag closed its doors forever - 1,800 jobs lost while our government gives tax rates to companies that move jobs offshore. John Edwards knows the Maytag closing jeopardizes a way of life. Tell John Edwards he's right. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if Edwards is right, this ad got it wrong. According to the website factcheck.org, the Maytag jobs were sent to Ohio, not overseas, and tax breaks didn't have much to do with it.
Nowadays we all have the means to know when things are wrong, and know it fast, because of an explosion of fact-checking websites and units at many major news outlets.
Factcheck.org is one of the oldest and most prominent. It's also resolutely non-partisan, so much so that director Brooks Jackson won't pass judgment, even while trolling for untruths.
BROOKS JACKSON: But I'll tell you, we are very careful never to characterize something as a lie unless we can prove somehow that the person who said it absolutely knew that what they said was false.
A lot of the things candidates say that we find to be untrue, they believe. They've deceived themselves. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] BROOKS JACKSON: And I hear this quite often, that — well, you know, regardless of what the facts are, you know, we're telling the truth. But they - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] This is what Steven Colbert calls "truthiness?" BROOKS JACKSON: [LAUGHS] Yes. Well, truthiness isn't quite good enough for us. As I say, many of these falsehoods are also lies, but I'm not a mind reader, so - and I'm also not there to pass judgment on the character of a candidate, just on the accuracy of what they're telling the voters. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, but it does mean something if a candidate, when confronted with a correction, refuses to take advantage of it. Doesn't that speak a little bit as to how they would behave as president? BROOKS JACKSON: Perhaps so, and I think that's something voters ought to consider. It's not my job to tell people how to vote. It's not going to make me more credible if we're out there characterizing candidates. What we're doing, in my mind anyway, is just applying the standards that any good editor would apply to a reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where did the idea of fact-checking originate? I mean, was there some golden Rubicon that was crossed and somebody said this aggression will not stand? BROOKS JACKSON: Back in 1988 — of course, that's the year the famous, or infamous, Willie Horton ad appeared in the Dukakis/Bush presidential election — we were still covering campaigns, like we'd covered Harry Truman's whistle stop campaign, covering speeches by candidates and a lot of the inside baseball, too.
But so much of the communication with the voters was going on through 30-second TV ads, millions and millions of dollars, and those just were not being covered in any sort of systematic way.
So in '92 there was a flourishing of this sort of reporting. And I was part of it at CNN, and they were quite popular. But they fell into disuse. This kind of reporting kind of plateaued, and our surveys find that it declined, both among newspapers and TV stations, and really hit kind of a low point in the 2000 election. But it's been coming back strongly ever since. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Annenberg Public Policy Center does offer some reasons why fact-checking is on the rise on its website. Among the conclusions they came to - viewers like ad-watch stories. Half of news directors who ran them reported positive viewer reaction. And ad-watch stories, most of all, can be good for ratings. BROOKS JACKSON: The ones who practice this aggressively find that it does boost their standing in the community; people seem to appreciate it. I'm just happy to see it because I think this is a core responsibility of a free press. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it's harder than you would guess to dislodge wrong facts. I mean, we've discussed the study on our program - maybe you've seen it too - that strongly suggests that most of us, to some degree, are immune to fact checks. In other words, if you try to correct a record by saying that, no, Senator X did not cheat, steal, play footsie, whatever, in time people tend to forget the "not" and the lie is reinforced by the repetition, even of the correction. BROOKS JACKSON: It is a strong, strong human tendency to want to cling to whatever our opinions might be and reject all the evidence, however strong it might be, that might force us to change our minds. That's just the way we are as humans. But that's no excuse for we in the news media letting a falsehood stand.
Now, if they choose not to use those facts, I'm sorry about that, but that shouldn't be an excuse for us not to give it to them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the impact has been of all of these proliferating fact-checking outlets and operations? Has it kept the candidates more honest? BROOKS JACKSON: Well, too soon to tell but I wouldn't be optimistic. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] BROOKS JACKSON: Look, candidates who run for office and try to get people's votes are looking to say those things that people respond to and that are going to get them to like you and vote for you, and you're secondarily concerned about whether the things you say are accurate or not.
So I don't think that we're going to change their behavior, and I don't think we should try to do that. I think what we should try to do is give citizens, voters, our readers sound facts on which they can base their own judgments. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brooks, thank you very much. BROOKS JACKSON: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brooks Jackson is director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check.