The Fifth Estate

Campaign “fact” checkers: A user’s guide

TV Candidates

Illustration by David Cowles

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Though strict truth-in-advertising restrictions shield American consumers from bogus claims, no such federal protections exist to ensure that citizens aren’t hoodwinked by politicians hawking distorted realities from the campaign stump. That should be the job of the media—the Fourth Estate, entrusted with keeping our three branches of government honest. But the media often opt for the ease of slapping quotation marks around politicians’ claims instead of doing the hard work of investigating them. Enter a burgeoning Fifth Estate: the fact checkers. These organizations, which range from the user-friendly to the überwonky, are looking for truth in politics and helping voters see beyond the flurry of fact-fudging that’s already marring this election season.

Sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FactCheck.org earned its stripes sifting through the 2004 election’s litany of attack ads and debates, and finding fault across the political spectrum. The project kept up its work in Washington’s off-season and is now back on the campaign trail for 2008. Case in point: In May, FactCheck.org took Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to task for trumpeting his supposed aversion to raising taxes. The website noted that the former Massachusetts governor failed to mention “that he increased government fees by hundreds of millions of dollars and shifted some of the state tax burden to the local level.”

PolitiFact.com, a joint venture of the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly and Florida’s Saint Petersburg Times, joins the fact-finding mission this election cycle. PolitiFact uses a handy Truth-O-Meter to assemble a rogues’ gallery of mendacious candidates. Presidential hopeful John Edwards earned a “mostly true” rating when he used the most extreme estimate available to punctuate his populist platform with the statistic that 56 million Americans don’t have bank accounts. Fellow Democratic contender Bill Richardson, however, rated a “pants on fire” when he claimed that God and the Constitution enshrined Iowa’s special position in the primary season.

Even if politicians started preaching nothing but the truth, their views would still reach voters through the media’s interpretive lens, which is why Media Matters for America (www.mediamatters.org), Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR; www.fair.org), and other watchdogs dig through media oversights, biases, and errors. In the May/June edition of FAIR’s publication, Extra!, the group called out the media for lionizing Rudy Giuliani as a 9/11 hero without critically examining the then–New York mayor’s failures. And in July, Media Matters painstakingly detailed the amount of ink and airtime that the Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN spent parsing the political fallout of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s cleavage.