PHILADELPHIA — It was going to be another busy night of deciphering truth in an election that regularly stampedes it, so Rob Farley unlocked the spartan office of Factcheck.or g and waved to the night janitor.
He walked past portraits of six politicians framed on the wall — three Republicans and three Democrats — and sat at a desk surrounded by books with titles such as “Dirty Politics,” “Electoral Dysfunction,” and “Throw Them All Out.” He powered up two computer screens just in time for the beginning of last week’s vice presidential debate and listened as the moderator asked her first question.
Farley jiggled his knee and twirled a pen as the candidates began to answer. “Huh-uh. Not true,” he said a moment later, leaning away from the screen, shaking his head.
Ninety seconds into the debate, he hunched over his keyboard to begin his first correction of the night.
“Well,” he wrote, “that didn’t take long.”
For Farley and his six co-workers at Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan nonprofit group on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the presidential election has become a predictable cycle of ambiguity and distortion: Candidates speak in half-truths and exaggerations, which are then amplified by the media and sensationalized in attack ads. Misinformation burns a trail across the Internet. The public trust erodes.
The mission of Factcheck.org is etched onto a small sign in the company’s office — “Just The Facts.” But rarely are facts absolute in the election of 2012. There are Mitt Romney’s facts and President Obama’s facts, liberal facts and conservative facts. There are facts provided by the mainstream media (“sometimes slanted,” Farley says), think tanks (“flawed”), analysts (“opinionated”) and television commercials (“not to be trusted”). There are Internet facts that are not, in fact, facts at all.
As Obama and Romney prepare for their second debate Tuesday, just three weeks from Election Day, the presidential campaign is less a referendum on the facts than a fight over whose facts to believe.
It is Farley’s job to sort that out. He moved to Pennsylvania 10 months ago after several years as an investigative reporter and political fact-checker in Florida, a job that suits his natural fastidiousness. On the night of the vice-presidential debate, there was a dust remover on one side of his desk, a lint remover on the other and a can of Apple-Cinnamon Glade perched high on the shelf. He had taped a headline from The Onion to the wall behind one of his computers: “Valiant Fact-Checkers Once Again Save American Political System from Descending into Corruption.”
“Everybody else has a side in this race,” he said, “and it is my job to walk right down the middle.”
Factcheck.org has tried to build its organization in the perilous middle at a time when fact-checking has come in vogue. A few other nonprofits and several media organizations — including The Washington Post — also employ political fact-checkers, making the field considerably more crowded than it was during the last presidential election. In a campaign season rife with voter skepticism, there are instant fact-checkers, television fact-checkers and fact-checkers employed by both campaigns.
Factcheck.org is among the most exhaustive in its pursuit of impartiality, publishing its findings daily on a Web site, disclosing all of its financial donations and linking to secondary sources. Employees are banned from using the word “lie,” because management considers it too judgmental. They never grade truth on a scale – no half-true or mostly true – because doing so could be seen as subjective.
Their office has no communal space and no TV, so the fact-checkers stayed at their desks during the debate, watching feeds on their computers and e-mailing one another ideas for items to check later that night. Farley consulted with mathematicians to verify the candidates’ figures and searched archives to compare their promises with others they had made before. Most of the misstatements he heard were ones he already had corrected and would probably correct again.
“If we judge our success on whether or not the candidates correct their talking points, then this is a serious exercise in futility,” Farley said. But he judged success based on thoroughness, so he listened to the debate and tried to confirm what he heard against a transcript — which he planned to verify by listening to the debate again.
On this night, what Farley heard was the soundtrack of an election in which the truth is on trial, and everyone considers himself a fact-checker.
“Not a single thing he said is correct,” Vice President Biden said at one point, nodding in the direction of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Oh, perfect for us,” Farley said, making a note on his legal pad.
“All this loose talk. Not true. Not true,” Ryan said to Biden. “These are indisputable facts!”
Farley turned to his computer and began another e-mail to his co-workers. “We dispute, no?”
He had first been drawn to this work — “kind of a calling,” he said — because so many people seem to base decisions on facts that had been distorted. Polls show 64 percent of voters are influenced by campaign ads, and studies indicate that most ads contain at least one misrepresentation. A few weeks ago, Obama told “60 Minutes”: “Do we see . . . mistakes that are made and areas where there’s no doubt that somebody could dispute how we are presenting things? Yeah, you know, that happens in politics.”
According to Factcheck.org, it is happening with increasing frequency in this election, which is dominated by complicated issues that make it easy to cherry-pick facts. There’s the issue of the economy, “with a study and a number to suit everybody,” Farley said. There’s health-care reform, “where you need to make a clarification per sentence,” he said.
And now, in the vice presidential debate, there was a deceptively simple question about taxes: Under Mitt Romney’s plan, the moderator asked, who would pay more and who would pay less?
Biden said: Millionaires will pay $250,000 less on average, and the middle class will pay more.
Ryan said: Six studies confirm that’s not true.
Two answers. Two conflicting statements. And during the next two hours in an election when facts are fluid, they came to mean so many different things.
For liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, it meant: “We now know the Romney campaign is clueless on taxes.”
For the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, it meant: “Romney’s tax plan would boost economic growth and do so in a neutral manner.”
For a chain e-mail sent by a pro-Democratic group to its message group: “Vote for Obama unless you want millionaires to get richer while you go broke!”
For a Facebook post shared by hundreds of conservatives: “Vote for Romney if you still believe in facts and studies.”
Finally, long past midnight, Farley stared at his computer screen and deciphered what the statements mean at Factcheck.org: “Biden falsely claims . . . ” he wrote. And then: “Ryan inflates the number of ‘studies’. . .”
He and his co-workers corrected more than a dozen items for their Web site until their boss dismissed them with a final e-mail at 4:19 a.m. Farley drove home to the Philadelphia suburbs, to a house in a swing district targeted by incessant campaign ads and mailings — another place with so many versions of the truth. He tried to sleep for two hours and then came back to the office at 7:30 a.m. for a television interview. “This is our chance to clarify the facts,” he said. He drank a Diet Coke to wake himself up. He used the lint roller to clean his jacket.
The TV studio connection didn’t work, so he agreed to do the interview by phone. He sat at his desk and waited for the call. His e-mail was mounting with notes from partisan officials disputing his facts and a few mass mailings from the campaigns that chopped his findings and turned them into half-truths to benefit one side. His facts were fluid now. The phone rang. “Factcheck, this is Rob,” he said. He listened to a question from the radio interviewer, who tried and failed to summarize one of Factcheck.org’s findings from the previous night.
“Actually, that’s not quite what we’re saying here,” Farley said. Already his facts had been obscured by the cycle of misinformation, and he began to offer another correction.