This week, Brits are leveling accusations at politicians who they say misled the public about what a Brexit actually means for the UK. In light of the clamor, we revisit an earlier question: if fact-checking is meant to chasten politicians who lie, and there's more fact-checking than ever, why isn't it more chaste out there? Last winter, Bob spoke with Angie Drobnic Holan of Politifact about what fact-checking can really accomplish, from the existence of murky "half-truths" to the hope that an educated populace will, in the end, care about the accuracy of claims.
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: When we fact-check, we don't think about how the politicians are going to react. Our goal is to inform voters and people who want to make a good decision based on accurate information.
BOB GARFIELD: Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site has a spectrum of six ratings to show the level of truth or mendacity for every political claim they investigate. As of this recording, the site has fact-checked 170 statements from Donald Trump, of which 4 received a rating of True; 69 of them have been ranked False and 34 have been ranked as, quote, “Pants on Fire,” what you might call painfully wrong. There are times, however, that a claim doesn’t fall on either end of that spectrum.
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: Our definition of the rating of Half-True is the statement is partially accurate but takes things out of context or leaves out important details. They’ve got something right here but there's also a lot of things [LAUGHS] that are left out that would give you a different impression.
BOB GARFIELD: Which seems to define pretty much the lion’s share of American political rhetoric. Here's one that you rated Half-True. It came from Trump, talking about the deportation of immigrants at an earlier period in American history.
DONALD TRUMP: Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower - good president, great president, people liked him - moved a million and a half illegal immigrants out of this country. Moved them just beyond the border, they came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn't like it, moved them way South. They never came back.
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: In the 1950s, they thought that there were too many workers from Mexico in the United States, so they tried to forcibly deport some of them. So, on that fact, Trump had something of a historical basis. He said they moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of the country. Well, the experts we talked to said that number was far too high. A more accurate number would be somewhere in the 250,000 range. He made it sound like they got a lot of people out of the country and it was easy. Well, it was controversial. It wasn't as many as he said. And it went along with new opportunities for legal immigration. So that's why we rated this one Half-True.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there is this other category that I find particularly nettling, and that is telling outrageous lies with facts. Let me give you an example. This is an ad against Rick Perry, when he was running for reelection to the Texas governorship, from the Democratic Governors Association.
SPOKESMAN: This is the arm of an 11-year-old girl. Now, imagine a governor who wanted to take a needle, fill it with a controversial drug for sexually-transmitted diseases and inject it in every 11- and 12-year-old girl in Texas. That’s what Governor Rick Perry wanted to do.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the HPV vaccine, [LAUGHS] the human papilloma virus, which causes cancer. So that fact was, itself, true, and yet, what they're trying to suggest is just an obscene, obscene lie. Your organization rated that Pants on Fire over the [LAUGHS] issue of parental consent that was brought up in the ad, which they got completely wrong. But I wonder if the incendiary nature of the nominally-true allegation, would have it merited a Pants on Fire all by itself?
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: Sometimes political attacks are very inflammatory, but they're also accurate. One trend I've noticed over the years is that the [LAUGHS] political ad makers are scrutinizing their language much more carefully, so that sometimes they can claim literal truth. At PolitiFact, what we try to do is take those statements, if they’re literally accurate we put them in context. We try to not let the ad makers get the upper hand whenever they're presenting something as scary that if you had more information it would not seem scary. Those kind of statements don't get pristine ratings on our Truth-O-Meter.
BOB GARFIELD: Do they deserve a category of their own, Lying with the Truth?
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: You know, I’m not sure. I mean, usually things are more straightforward than that. Those examples are rarer than you might think. Usually when something sounds wrong, it's because it is wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s a good answer. I’m not sure it’s right –
- because I know, even as we speak, there are opposition researchers poring over every legislative vote of every candidate, looking for some line in every piece of legislation –
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - that in a vacuum looks terrible and in context is perfectly ordinary, right? In fact, some of ‘em are even planted in bills, in order for subsequent campaign opposition researchers to have ammunition.
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: When we look at other candidates and they have these long congressional records, they are subject to attack. People thought that senators couldn’t win the presidency ‘cause they took too many votes, ripe for distortion. Something that is really twisted will stand on its own for a bit, until the journalists and the fact checkers come in and look at it and try to put in its proper context. And then candidates who are savvy take the evidence that's vetted by independent journalists and they use it to fight back.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just say that the political campaign is the digestive tract of the American body politic and that all sorts of disgusting things go on in there for the sake of a healthy organism. I'm just curious what part of the body is PolitiFact? [LAUGHS]
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: [LAUGHS] You know, I often think of PolitiFact as the vitamin for a balanced media diet. Like, you wouldn't want to read only fact-checking, but I don't think you would want to read political coverage without supplementing with a good bit of fact-checking information from credible and independent news organizations.
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BOB GARFIELD: Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact. Thanks so much.
ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how to fact-check candidates when they don’t really care about the truth.