CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It doesn’t take long before the skepticism starts percolating through the crowd in the library meeting room.
“I have discussions with people about the news all the time on Facebook, and I show them what I consider to be credible sources of information,” a man named Paul Epstein says from a middle row. “And they say, ‘Oh, that’s all biased.’ So how can you, or how can we, convince people to trust any mainstream media?”
Amy Hollyfield of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization, considers the question. She hesitates a beat before telling Epstein and about 65 others in the audience that maybe you can’t. Not all the time.
“We have a lot of things on our website” that attest to PolitiFact’s impartiality and credibility, Hollyfield says. “But I don’t think that seeps in when you’re having that kind of conversation. That’s why we’re trying to tell our story.”
More hands start popping up. What about your own biases, a lady in a purple blouse wants to know. “How do you hire to avoid the biases” that PolitiFact calls out in others, she asks.
Hollyfield and four of her fellow PolitiFactors seated up front at the Kanawha County Public Library expected some of this. They came to this city of 50,000, capital of a once-blue state now trending redder by the day, on an unusual outreach mission. The nonprofit website’s journalists have been traveling into the heart of Red America to explain what fact-checkers do and to promote PolitiFact’s version of it. Charleston is the third and final stop of the tour, after Tulsa and Mobile, Ala.
In Charleston, the library crowd — generally older, largely white — seems to want to know what’s wrong with America’s politics and the media that covers it. There are questions about “fake news,” the influence of billionaire donors on campaign rhetoric, the overuse of anonymous sources in news stories, and about whether, just maybe, it might be time to start licensing journalists to separate the pros from the poseurs.
The fact-checkers keep steering the conversation back to PolitiFact and its 10-year track record of rating political speech, including how it assigns its most damning rating, “Pants on Fire.”
“Our only objective is the truth,” deputy editor Katie Sanders tells the crowd at one point.
The room stirs. A murmur starts.
Aaron Sharockman, PolitiFact’s executive director, explains the organization’s new partnership with the local paper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, to fact-check statements made by state and city candidates in upcoming races. The group has similar partnerships in 13 states.
A hand immediately goes up. “What I’d like to know is,” says a gray-haired man near the front, “will your partnership be with the Gazette side of the paper or the Mail side of the paper?”
A knowing laugh erupts in the crowd. The Gazette and Mail, once rivals, merged in 2015 amid the industry’s ongoing financial misery. The merged paper maintains one news staff but two independent editorial pages. The Gazette’s generally liberal opinions appear on the left side of two facing pages, with the Mail’s more conservative ones on the right.
Neither side, replies Sharockman. PolitiFact is teaming with the paper’s newsroom, not its opinion slingers, to vet statements uttered by politicians, political organizations and pundits, he says. The PolitiFact website — based in St. Petersburg, Fla., and maintained by the Tampa Bay Times, which is in turn owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization — has no stake in any party or ideology, he tells the room.
Sharockman doesn’t get any pushback on that, but he’s fully aware of the free-floating cynicism about fact-checking, a form that has enjoyed a boomlet in the past few years with such outfits as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker on the scene. In one poll last year, 88 percent of people who supported Trump during the 2016 campaign said they didn’t trust media fact-checking. (Overall, just 29 percent of likely voters in the survey said they did.) PolitiFact itself has come in for particularly intense criticism; a blog called PolitiFact Bias is devoted to “exposing [its] bias, mistakes and flimflammery.”
The basic critique is that fact-checkers cherry-pick statements and facts to create a false impression — usually that conservative candidates are less truthful than the liberal kind.
“We think for our credibility it’s super important that we reach out to people who aren’t reading us currently,” Sharockman said during an interview before the library presentation, noting that only about 15 percent of PolitiFact’s readers said they were Republicans in a 2015 internal survey.
At the same time, he bristles a bit at the conservative critique. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you fact-check Hillary Clinton’s claim about coming under fire [as first lady] in Bosnia?’ Well, we did. The person we fact-checked more than anyone else is Barack Obama. . . . The person we fact-check the most is the president. We’re going to hold the president accountable.”
The fact of the matter is that both sides are becoming less moored to the truth, Sharockman says. The number of untrustworthy statements by Republicans and Democrats alike has grown over the past three presidential cycles, he noted. Sharockman doesn’t say so, but Trump has the most dubious track record of anyone on PolitiFact, with nearly 70 percent of the statements on his scorecard rated “Mostly False,” “False” or “Pants on Fire.”
That last rating is the most serious violation of the truth, a designation assigned by a panel of three editors — a “star chamber,” the PolitiFactors jokingly call it.
There’s plenty of nuance in the process. To demonstrate, Sanders walks the library crowd through a sample exercise.
She presents a comment made by Sen. Bernie Sanders (no relation) during a Democratic debate last year: “Very little of [the defense] budget — less than 10 percent — actually goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism.”
Katie Sanders briefly lays out the budget particulars and the expert opinion about the claim by the senator from Vermont. The evidence generally seems to undermine Sanders’s assertion, but there are some gray areas.
People in the library debate how to rate the statement. Finally, she asks for a vote.
There’s no consensus. Some call Sanders’s statement “Half True.” Others go for “Mostly False.”
The exercise makes a subtle point, which seems to be exactly why PolitiFact chose it: See, this fact-checking thing, it isn’t so easy, is it?