Fact Checkers Unite to Predict Debate Deceptions

Sep 25, 2012 6:00am

President Obama and Mitt Romney are still hundreds of miles from the debate stage, but fact checkers are already poised and ready to dissect the half-truths that, if the past 15 months of campaigning are any indication, the presidential candidates are likely to  fling at each other during the first presidential debate  Oct. 3.

The top fact checkers from Politifact, FactCheck.org, The Washington Post’s  Fact Checker blog and The Associated Press are putting their heads together this week to root out the less-than-factual lines President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to spin. The four groups will forecast these debate deceptions during a panel at the Press Club in Washington, D.C.,  Wednesday.

“In an age where the typical citizen is subjected to an avalanche of the kind of pure baloney that journalists used to keep out of the public discourse … they are looking for journalists to be kind of adjudicators or referees,” said FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson. “That’s what we try to do.”

While FactCheck.org, a subsidiary of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy, does not issue true or false ratings, Obama has already tallied six “pants on fire” rulings from Politifact and Romney has chalked up ten “4 Pinocchio’s” ratings from the Washington Post’ Fact Checker.

Glenn Kessler, who writes the Post’s Fact Checker blog, said one of the biggest falsehoods that Romney continues to reiterate is that Obama has “apologized for America.” Kessler gave that statement 4 Pinocchios, the least-factual rating, noting that the president never used “a word at all similar to ‘apologize.’”

Kessler said one of Obama’s favorite half-truths is saying that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan will make seniors “pay nearly $6,400 more for Medicare than they do today.” That statement got 2 Pinnochios, because it relies on a previous version of Ryan’s budget plan.

Unlike Kessler and Politifact, which both rate politicians’ statements on a definitive scale from true to false, FactCheck.org shies away from issuing such a rating. Jackson said there are often situations where statements fall into that gray area between truth and fiction, making a stark true or false rating rather complicated.

For example, in Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to the Democratic National Convention he said that according to “the experts” Romney’s tax plan would create 800,000 jobs overseas. That is a technically a true statement because one expert – Kimberly Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College – did come to that conclusion. But many other experts have challenged Clausing’s findings, Jackson said.

“In this case we are reporting facts about expert opinion but they are opinion,” Jackson said.

Fact checks like these have become far more common this election cycle. Kessler has put out 138 so far on Obama and Romney alone. But that increase may have do more to with the public’s “hunger” for truth than an uptick in the number of campaign lies, Kessler said.

“I’ve been covering politics for a long time, and I always maintain that politicians will always stretch the truth if they think it’s in their political interest,” he said. “But I do think there is a hunger out there from readers and viewers. There’s a lot more skepticism out there.”

And with the deluge of news from cable TV, blogs and tweets, Jackson from FactCheck.org said fact checkers are needed more than ever before to “marshal the evidence.”

“The public’s problem is not that they are not getting enough information, it’s they are getting too much of it,” Jackson said. “They need help sorting through all this stuff.”

Millions of people are turning to these fact checking sites. Nearly 2 million people have looked up 6.5 million pages on FactCheck.org over the past month.And Kessler’s Fact Checker blog brings in more than 1 million views per month.

As Romney and Obama take the debate stage next Wednesday, ABC News will join the fact-checking fray to decipher the true statements from the deceptive lines. You can find those fact checks HERE.

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