New Web site uses humor to fact check political ads and political journalism

If Abraham Lincoln were running for president today, a campaign attack ad might go something like this:

(Cue sneering voice of ad announcer.) “Why should we trust you as president when as a lawyer you defended whiskey-hating women who smashed up a saloon, an admitted adultress and a wife who poisoned her husband?” A message at the end of the ad reads that it was “Paid for by white male property owners who know a woman’s place.”

The Lincoln spoof aimed at high school and college students is featured on Flackcheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Web site launched Thursday with the goal of encouraging journalists and the public to be more vigilant in truth-squadding misleading political ads and candidates’ statements.

Those who are vigilant about such nefarious activities are probably familiar with Factcheck.org, which was started in 2003 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg center, who founded Factcheck along with former CNN reporter Brooks Jackson, describes Flackcheck as a playful sibling to the serious Factcheck.

The idea is to use digital dazzle, games and humor to hook people into questioning the political information they consume and encourage them to read journalism from serious news sources.

“We’re trying to provide another way of increasing available information to the electorate about accurate positions of the candidates,” Jamieson said in an interview this week.

Once the site begins to generate a critical mass of users, Jamieson said, the staff will track how many people who watch a video go on to look at related content at Factcheck.org.

Flackcheck has a staff of 13, including three comedy writers, animators and film and video producers. The project is funded by the Annenberg Foundation and the Omidyar Network, a foundation run by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

Jamieson said she and Jackson founded the original site, which has 87,000 subscribers, out of a concern that “the news media, which had been doing a good job of fact-checking in 1996 and 1992, had started to walk away from the fact-checking function because newsrooms were starting to get smaller, there were more one-newspaper towns and news organizations no longer had the resources to put into it.” (The Washington Post’s own truth-squading feature, called “The Fact Checker,” is still thriving.)

Flackcheck includes educational segments that Jamieson hopes will engage students, as well as fun-loving adults, in learning about questionable political tactics. In the feature imagining how Lincoln would fare in today’s political climate, another ad takes phrases from his famous Gettysburg address and uses them to suggest that the Civil War was not worth fighting.

In a game called “They Said What?!” players are asked to guess which person Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich refers to as a socialist: Karl Marx, Robert Owen or President Obama?

But as with the original site, a major focus is monitoring the media’s coverage of political ads, in addition to the ads themselves. Jamieson says that reporting on the ads, and airing the most sensational allegations without correcting them, spreads misinformation.

A feature called “Stinkweeds and Orchids” praises and scolds the media for how they cover political ads. Those that report on the ads without raising questions about inaccurate or misleading content get stinkweeds. A Jan. 5 segment of “NewsHour” on PBS was chided for running 27 seconds of an ad attacking Gingrich. The journalists in the story, which was about front-runner Mitt Romney’s negative ad blitz just ahead of the Iowa caucuses, apparently did not take the time to parse the ads.

Candy Crowley, host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” was presented with orchids for challenging ads run by AARP, the Air Transport Association and the American Petroleum Institute during deliberations in the fall by the “supercommittee” convened to come up with a plan to reduce the country’s deficit.

Crowley told representatives of the groups that their ads, which warned of dire consequences to their constituencies, sounded like “threats” and asked if they were willing to make any sacrifices.

“It was just astonishing to me how people were lobbying the supercommittee, and the ads seemed to me just threatening!” Crowley said in an interview Tuesday.

Crowley, a longtime political reporter who said she has used Factcheck.org, said the increased use of digital communication by campaigns makes it more challenging for journalists and the public to keep track of misleading information.

“It’s not only what people are putting in ads, it’s e-mails going out under weird names. I get them from relatives asking, ‘Is this true?’ On top of that it’s Web ads, on top of people looking at ads on YouTube, on top of just your generic, old-fashioned television ad and whatever is coming out of the candidate’s mouth or what the candidate’s surrogates are saying.

“It’s overwhelming and yet I think [truth-squadding has] never been more important,” she said, because digital media allow candidates and campaigns to get to the public more quickly and broadly than traditional news organizations.

Fact-checking, she said, has “almost become like spot-checking for drunks. You don’t catch all of them . . . but it’s a way of saying ‘beware of the drunks.’ ”

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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