Q&A: Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org

A consistently bright spot in any presidential election is the negative print and broadcast ads. Attacking an opponent’s performance and proposed policies is wholly appropriate. I wish there were more. But many attack ads are so toxic, so distorted that

A consistently bright spot in any presidential election is the negative print and broadcast ads. Attacking an opponent’s performance and proposed policies is wholly appropriate. I wish there were more.

The best of these ads and the responses often tell me more than candidates’ repetitive, soporific speeches and vote-for-me appeals. Many other ads are so toxic, so distorted that they’ve become an art form of their own noxious kind.

So, in addition to analyses of campaign ads done by Enquirer reporters and other major Ohio dailies and carried by The Enquirer, a valuable corrective to political bullshit is the nonprofit, nonpartisan factcheck.org.

I don’t expect this matters to fans who scream “terrorist” or “kill him” when Sarah Palin winks, shifts into playground soprano and questions Obama’s patriotism. Similarly, fact-checking won’t break through the cognitive dissonance among Hillary Clinton supporters who will vote for John McCain out of crazed pique.

But for voters who still read and make informed choices, here’s my Q&A last week with Brooks Jackson, factcheck.org’s Washington-based director. His responses are followed by background on his operation.

CityBeat: What do factcheck.org folks do between presidential elections?
Brooks Jackson: We will be following the debates that we expect to emerge over health care, taxes, spending and other issues. The spin never stops in Washington. In 2005, for example (the first year of Bush’s second term) we had a huge fight over Social Security and two Supreme Court nomination fights, all of which generated TV advertising by lobbying groups and of course the usual “talking points” from each side, repeated in speeches, interviews and so on. We also cover mid-term elections in House and Senate, which in 2006 generated a large volume of misleading and false advertising.

You can go back and look at some of the articles from the non-election years too for specific examples. Traffic to the site is highest, by a very large factor, in the final weeks of a presidential election. But we have steady work in between as well.”

CB: Do you rely heavily/exclusively on Internet search engines for your fact checks and documentation?
Jackson: Not exclusively. Currently the books written by McCain and Obama are sources we have cited but which are not available online, to cite just one example. We will often interview experts directly. We also go directly to certain sites that we know have the information we want — such as Thomas for the text of legislation or for pages from the Congressional Record — that don’t necessarily pop up in a simple Google-type search. We download and massage raw data from such sources as the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well, without relying on a search engine. We use Nexis for searching specific news stories or transcripts of specific events. We also have access to a wide variety of academic databases through the University of Pennsylvania library, which puts tons of stuff on line for faculty and student use. However, with a little ingenuity, we do often find that using an Internet search engine can pop up a source we didn’t know about.

CB: Which search engines are most productive?
Jackson: I use Google mostly. One very useful feature is the toolbar, which allows a Google search of a specific Web site’s contents. Often this will bring up stuff that the Web site’s own search feature misses.

CB: Who does the footwork and where do they look?
Jackson: Answered earlier. We all do footwork to varying degrees, but mostly it’s working the phones and searching Internet sources without going through a search engine.

CB: How do you choose targets for fact checks?
Jackson: We screen all the ads, debates and as much of the candidates’ other statements as we can, looking for specific factual claims. If we are not sure they are right, we check ’em out. The ones that don’t square with the evidence we write up.

CB: Who does the fact checking?
Jackson: Myself and a great staff. Six people besides myself.

CB: How do you identify/deal with biases we all bring to our work?
Jackson: We do what any good journalist does — subject everybody to the same process, regardless of party or ideology — and let the chips fall where they may. Our biggest bias is against those who misinform the public. I think you’ll find we’ve gone after MoveOn.org as vigorously as we’ve gone after the National Rifle Association and criticized candidates from both parties pretty severely at times.

CB: If you have you been accused of partisanship by anyone but wingnuts (right or left), what has been their complaint? Your response?
Jackson: We get accused of bias by those on the left when we criticize those on the left and by those on the right when we criticize them. We generally don’t respond when people are just venting. If somebody claims we’ve made a factual error, we look into it and correct it if we find we were wrong. That happens infrequently, but when it does we correct our mistakes publicly.

CB: Can you give any example of where factcheck.org has blown it and had to recant and correct?
Jackson: The most recent example is the correction posted at the bottom of the Biden-Palin debate article. We faulted Biden for saying McCain had voted against a troop-funding bill. We said McCain, though he opposed the bill and urged a veto of it, was actually absent for the vote. Turns out there were two votes and McCain voted against it on original passage by the Senate and was absent only for the vote on the final Senate/House compromise version. So we retracted and said Biden had been correct.

CB: Talk about growing role/influence of bloggers in your chosen assignment, of fact checking?
Jackson: Bloggers? I certainly find some of the political news aggregation sites useful, such as Politico.com or TPM Election Central. But we don’t pay much attention to the sites that are just full of opinions. Often they turn out to be the source of bogus information that we end up debunking when it turns into a viral e-mail.

Here’s what the factcheck.org web site says about the organization:
Factcheck.org is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. The Annenberg Political Fact Check is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania … established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg in 1994 to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels.” The Center says it “accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. It is funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• In its monthly press review, the October Progressive quotes USA Today, saying “Premier Election Solutions, a unit of Diebold, told 34 states that a programming error in voting machines may cause votes to be dropped when they are electronically transferred. … A spokesman for the company said the error has been part of the software for 10 years.” I would add that those dates cover the 2000 and 2004 elections in which Diebold machines claimed that the GOP won Ohio and Ohio gave Bush the election. Remember the assurances of clueless county election officials? Was your vote “lost?”

• Columnist David Brooks, the New York Times house conservative and PBS talking head, offers one of the smartest columns of the political season. He traces the GOP decline from a postwar movement of ideas (Kirk, Buckley and, yes, Reagan) into social class war against anyone with an education (Palin et. al.) It’s become Joe Six-Pack vs. Harvard. Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov (1906–1977) would be proud.

• Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher has a different take on Brooks. Contrasting Brooks’ favorable debate judgment on Palin, Mitchell calls it “dishonesty” when Brooks says a few days later that Palin is not “not even close” to being ready to be vice president and she is a “fatal cancer” on the GOP.

• Add “Joe Six-Pack” to “on the ground” as cliches to be avoided like the plague.

• Pundits are wrong. Palin is damn lucky the Troopergate report came out and said what it did and when it did: She broke no law. Tacky, yes. Scary “First Dude.” But it’s over. No more hinting at what the bipartisan probe commissioned by Republican legislators will say and how this will hurt.

• Clark Hoyt, the New York Times ombuds, uses his Sunday column to castigate The Times and the rest of the news media and cable networks for their quadrennial focus on the presidential contest as a horse race at the expense of what readers say they want and need to know: the candidates’ policies on everything that matters. Call it trickle down. Few dailies have or allocate the resources to do these analyses so they wait until they can reprint The Times’ thin offerings or efforts by the AP. And when those efforts require lots of newsprint, we don’t get them in our papers, in our broadcasts or cable news shows or online from local sources.

• London’s Daily Mail is reporting a resurrection of the old rumor of an Obama affair with a campaign worker in 2004. The Daily Mail says the rumor originated in an attempt to derail Obama’s nomination in August and appears to have been picked up by “a shadowy smear campaign.”

• Didn’t anyone in the mainstream news media notice the white vans around the University of Cincinnati with their Obama posters urging people to vote early so that long lines won’t “screw” them? Within a day, the signs were creatively folded to eliminate the potentially objectionable word and references to Obama.

• It’s lectern, not podium, behind which candidates and other speakers stand. It’s podium on which they stand. I know it’s elitist to insist on the right words in news stories and headlines. After all, many confusing words — media, data, podium, homicide — are rooted in Latin, but getting those wrong are as criminal as confusing chianti and chardonnay, beer and ale or lager and stout. And you wouldn’t do that … twice.

• If we learned anything from the vice presidential debate, it was that a weak moderator soon loses control. Gwen Ifill asked her questions and the candidates responded with whatever they wanted to say and ignored her rare, weak protests. It’s not rude to ask the question again, saying, “Senator, Governor, you didn’t answer my question. Let’s try again.” The winner won’t ban you from the White House after Jan. 20. Brokaw did a better job on last week’s presidential town meeting, but he acknowledged the limit to what a moderator can do when candidates talk on. That’s not all bad. We’re watching/listening to the candidates, not the moderator, but it also lends itself to same old same old rather than probing by the moderator that might uncover something new.

• “Bailout” suggests a following sea that washes over a boat’s stern. Barring frantic bailing, waves win and the boat sinks, stern first. What isn’t clear from news stories is whether the Fed and Treasury are flailing or bailing. Meanwhile, Bush’s assurances are like water to a drowning man.

• Here what’s missing from news stories I’ve seen: Who’s buying? You can’t sell unless someone buys.

• CJR.org is carrying a Friday column by Craig Silverman, editor of RegretTheError.com, a compendium of news media errors and corrections. His first cjr.org post was about the Boston Globe’s apology for a photo of Kevin O’Connell, a rookie quarterback for the New England Patriots. A high-resolution photo showed a piece of paper stuck to his playlist wristband that said, upon close scrutiny, “My Dick Is Tiny Too.” The cutline under the photo said “The Patriots … believe he has the tools to be a topflight quarterback.”

• Embarrassment of a different kind afflicted The New York Times last week with a correction of a correction about The Times. Here is the entire text:

“An obituary on Sept. 23 about Nancy Hicks Maynard, a newspaper publisher and journalism educator, attributed an erroneous distinction to her, and a correction in this space on Sept. 25 repeated the error. She was one of the first black women to become a reporter at The New York Times, but not the first; at least one, Bernadette Carey, a reporter in society news, preceded her.”

• CNN iReport carried a post by an anonymous “citizen journalist” that Apple’s Steve Jobs was rushed to a hospital ER after a heart attack. It wasn’t true. It was posted without verification and stayed up for at least 20 minutes after Apple debunked the story. Now the fun begins. Whatever the motivation, it underlines the absurdity of “citizen journalist” and the accelerating rush to publish at the expense of accuracy.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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