When Miles O’Brien, a CNN anchor, wanted to know the facts behind an anti-John Kerry ad attacking the presidential candidate’s congressional testimony on the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago, he turned to an unconventional source: FactCheck.org.
O’Brien invited Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, to appear on his news show. O’Brien told viewers last month that Jackson’s website acts as a “truth meter” that sorts through the mudslinging.
Jackson told O’Brien that the ad was misleading. Kerry was right when he testified that American soldiers had committed atrocities in Vietnam.
FactCheck.org doesn’t claim to dispense the truth. Instead, the internet-based service, funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes the accuracy of political advertising on both sides of the ideological aisle. Sen. Kerry’s website has referenced FactCheck.org’s articles and so has President Bush’s. Kerry’s even linked to FactCheck.org from its homepage.
“One of our best days was when both the Bush and the Kerry campaigns quoted our articles in news releases as proof that the other side was lying,” said Jackson, who pioneered CNN’s so-called ad watch reports during the 1992 presidential election. “Of course, they were different articles, criticizing different issues.”
FactCheck.org’s original mission was to provide a service to small and medium-size news organizations that didn’t have the resources to check the facts presented in political ads. However, its reach went much further. Many mainstream media outlets rely on the group’s research in their own political coverage. Anthony Silva, a reporter for WBZ news radio in Boston, calls Jackson for his take on campaign ads. And Mark Matthews, a political reporter for KGO-TV in San Francisco, regularly cites FactCheck.org’s analysis in his political reports.
“It’s important for journalists to look at what’s being said in political ads and to analyze who’s sticking to the discernible facts and who isn’t,” said Matthews, an investigative reporter. “It’s our responsibility as journalists to look at what’s being said and to tell our readers the context of what’s being said. We have to tell them what is accurate or not accurate. FactCheck.org does a good job.”
Jackson isn’t surprised larger news outlets use FactCheck.org’s research, but he was taken aback by the public response to the site. The site has more than 35,000 subscribers to its electronic newsletter that debunks campaign ads, special-interest ads and even political rumors on the internet.
One piece of cybergossip suggested that Teresa Heinz Kerry’s charities support radical groups, some of which have links to terrorists. In its articles, FactCheck.org provides links to the original sources, so readers can review its investigations.
“Certainly the reach isn’t as broad as TV by any stretch of the imagination,” Jackson said. “But it shows a hunger for what we try to be: a nonpartisan, non-ideological resource that tries to sort things out in (an) understandable fashion. We try to call them like we see them.”
FactCheck.org fills a journalistic void. Major media outlets tend to report on the strategy behind campaign commercials rather than analyzing the content for veracity. Even though Jackson pioneered ad watches for CNN, the cable network let him go last year.
“I’ve seen the press generally put less emphasis on ad watches and fact-check-type stories,” Jackson said. “Political coverage is too much weighed toward covering the sport of politics: who’s ahead, who’s behind.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who hired Jackson to head FactCheck.org, said the media tends to give both sides of the story without providing analysis. “He said/she said journalism tends to do that, and this is especially true when you’re talking about advertising,” she said.
Jamieson said it’s difficult for journalists who cover the campaigns to decipher whether the assertions in the ads are correct. “A lot of journalists who cover campaigns aren’t policy experts,” she said. “It takes time to find the journalist who follows the policies and checks the facts. Under deadline, it’s difficult to do.”
Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says the internet lets the media outsource their research.
“I don’t want to say that journalists are lazy,” he said. “But if there are alternative and quicker sources available and they have some confidence in them, then they’ll make use of them. What’s happened is that journalists are reacting to web-based resources. There’s no reason for them to reinvent the wheel.”
Jamieson said she would like to devote more resources to FactCheck.org, so it could check the accuracy of political rumors circulating on the web. Along with Jackson, the group has two younger researchers. “With a much larger staff, I’d love to look at mass circulation on e-mail,” she said. “They look as though they are reasonable arguments when you get them from a friend and you’re likely to believe them.”
Until the election, FactCheck.org will cover the political ads. It will also provide analysis of the presidential debates. After that, Jamieson is not sure whether the Annenberg Center will continue to fund FactCheck.org.
“Our service was to provide a service to reporters,” Jamieson said. “I was surprised that the internet-savvy public has linked in. We’re delighted. Our goal was not to become a news organization, but provide the resources to the press to do more of this.”