Bitter campaign and its rhetoric bring fact checkers to the center of debate
TAMPA — Did Paul Ryan bend the truth?
The verdict, rendered by a slew of media fact checkers, was immediate and unequivocal: In his first major speech before the American people, the Republican vice presidential nominee repeatedly left out key facts, ignored context and was blind to his own hypocrisy.
The speech contained “several false and misleading statements,” declared FactCheck.org, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The speech was “not without inaccuracies,” asserted PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times.
But the push-back from the Romney campaign, and Republicans at large, was just as quick and just as self-assured. “Lemmings to their own death,” read the headline of a column by Erick Erickson on the conservative Web site RedState.com. “The fact checkers are not checking facts, they are spinning,” he wrote.
Jon Cassidy, writing on the Web site Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals. “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote.
The Ryan experience, which consumed the Republican National Convention and the broader political world Thursday, was a hyper-fast example of a pattern that has emerged again and again during this campaign, as fact-checking operations created and institutionalized during the 2004 and 2008 races have become key referees in the fight between Mitt Romney and President Obama.
Fact-checker findings, including those by The Washington Post’s project, figure prominently in campaign ads. The unique rating systems used by these organizations — including the trademarked Truth-O-Meter and Pinocchios — have become part of the political vernacular. In today’s rapidly evolving media environment, fact-check requests are a top priority for campaign media shops, which have designated specific advisers to deal with the questions.
Now, the fact checkers themselves are increasingly under fire, as the campaigns and their allies try to manage the fallout from their verdicts.
Campaigns push back
This week, Romney’s campaign faced questions about its repeated accusation that Obama ended welfare work requirements — even after fact checkers decreed that assertion false. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse turned the challenge back on the fact checkers, saying they bring their own “thoughts and beliefs” to the process.
“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” Newhouse said.
The Obama campaign, too, has targeted the fact checkers. They sent a public letter of complaint to FactCheck.org after the group concluded that it was unfair to blame Romney for actions taken by his onetime company, Bain Capital, after his day-to-day involvement with it ended in 1998. The Post’s Fact Checker reached the same conclusion.
Last year, when PolitiFact awarded its “lie of the year” prize to the Democratic accusation that Republicans who supported the Ryan budget had voted to end Medicare, it triggered one of the fiercest waves of push-back to date. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman slammed the service in a piece headlined “PolitiFact, R.I.P.”
“I think this is a classic tactic in a new media time. They’re relying on our work when it helps them and ignoring or pushing back on our work when it hurts them,” said Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, which employs six reporters and editors for national news and 30 additional workers for regional news.
Although news organizations have long sought to truth-squad political statements, the creation of special fact-checking units is a new development. Eager to appeal to consumers tired of he-said-she-said coverage, and in a time when news consumption has grown increasingly polarized, organizations are now more amenable to simple declarations of fact (and fiction) — no easy task during an election season.
FactCheck.org was founded in 2003 to make rulings about statements in the 2004 presidential race. By November 2004, the site was getting more than 200,000 page views a day. PolitiFact was founded in the run-up to the 2008 election, as was The Post’s Fact Checker. The latter returned, written by Glenn Kessler, in January 2011. The goal, say their authors, is to provide voters with an easy way to understand facts amid the daily din of partisan combat.
Ryan defends line of attack
For Ryan, a leading issue this week is whether he was fair to blame Obama for the shuttering of a General Motors plant in his home town of Janesville, Wis.
“Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: ‘I believe that if our government is there to support you . . . this plant will be here for another 100 years.’ That’s what he said in 2008,” Ryan said in his convention speech. “Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.”
After Ryan spoke, the Web site PolitiFact Wisconsin — a partnership between PolitiFact and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — rated the assertion “false.”
The site noted that “the plant closed while [President George W.] Bush was still in office, about a month before Obama was inaugurated.”
Kessler called Ryan’s statement “technically correct but phrased in a way that might leave listeners with the wrong impression” and awarded it two Pinocchios.
Conservatives said it was unfair to call the statement inaccurate. Although the plant closed in 2009, people had voted for Obama on the premise that he had the power to reopen it. Former New Hampshire governor John E. Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, said that “the sentence Paul Ryan used was correct” because Obama could have “done something to get it so that it would stay open for 100 years.”
“So, with all due respect to the Obama people and the fact checkers, they’re wrong,” Sununu said. “I find it amazing that fact checkers themselves need fact-checking.”
Ryan, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, defended his remarks. “I’m not saying it was his decision,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I’m saying he came and made these promises, makes these commitments, sells people on the notion that he’s going to do all these great achievements, and then none of them occur.”
Although Romney aides insist that they do not look to fact checkers to decide whether a line of attack is fair, Romney suggested this month that Obama should do exactly that.
“You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them,” Romney said, blasting an ad by an Obama super PAC that blamed the Republican for the cancer death of the wife of a man who lost health insurance after Bain Capital closed his workplace.
On his Web site this week, Kessler posted a Romney news release describing the “Obama Campaign’s Top Ten Lies & Exaggerations,” which draws heavily from the work of fact checkers — including seven references to his own column, nine to FactCheck.org and four to PolitiFact.
“This week, it’s the Republicans’ week. They’re going to be very annoyed and pushy over the things we say,” Kessler said. “I fully anticipate next week at the Democratic convention that the tables will be turned.”
The campaigns may publicly take issue with the fact checkers, but journalists who run the projects say the political camps respond professionally to questions about statements made by their candidates. The Obama campaign has tasked one media officer to deal exclusively with fact checker s’ questions, and top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom often personally handles requests.
But Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.
And the fact checkers say they don’t see their role as designed to change the behavior of politicians — or to convince the public of a particular point of view in any given debate. Their goal, they say, is to provide more information for voters to do with as they see fit.
“I don’t know if we’re winning hearts and minds,” Adair said. “I know we’re succeeding in informing people.”
David A. Fahrenthold and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.