Yeah, it's pretty much a crapshoot when PolitiFact Virginia makes a judgment on a politician. Mostly true, mostly false — it all depends where the dart lands and whether the editor's aiming over his shoulder. [Pants on Fire]
I'm kidding, of course. Reporter Sean Gorman and editor Warren Fiske investigate statements by politicians, parties and other interest groups using a rigorous set of rules. In fact, they understand math, which I can affirm is a bit rare among journalists, unless they have specialized beats.
To take a recent example, George Allen said, "China owns more of our bonds than do Americans." This statement, made in July, was rated false because the Senate candidate was comparing disparate statistics and not including U.S. banks among the owners of bonds.
During the process of reporting a story, the writer emails the person who made the statement and asks where the information came from. After checking out the statement, often by doing some math, the reporter gives it his own rating: true, false, mostly true, mostly false, or pants on fire. He also refers to guidelines set by PolitiFact, which was started in 2008 at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Finally, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where PolitiFact Virginia is based, a jury of three — editors Danny Finnegan, Paige Mudd and Fiske — vote on the final rating. They agree about 70 percent of the time, Fiske says.
"I don't expect everyone to agree with the rating we give," says Fiske, but he does hope readers will accept that "the facts are unassailable."
PolitiFact was born out of frustration. Bill Adair, a Washington correspondent for St. Petersburg, was listening to Democratic Sen. Zell Miller speak at the 2004 GOP convention. Adair knew that Miller was wrong on many facts, Fiske notes, but he had a next-day deadline.
There wasn't time to fully fact-check the speech, but Adair recognized the importance of turning the spotlight on what candidates were saying and determining whether it was true. That germ of an idea sprouted into a project that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize; now nine states have their own PolitiFact franchises, as well as other independent efforts.
PolitiFact Virginia was started last October with two reporters and an editor, who are employees of the Times-Dispatch. Fiske, who covered state politics at the Virginian-Pilot for 25 years, notes that his team (minus one reporter, who moved on to other duties within Media General) is separate from the paper's political reporters.
Fiske and Gorman don't cover news conferences, but they have good reason to be impeccable in analyzing statements made at such events. A wrong step could hurt the paper's overall credibility.
"You're really defining nuances," Fiske says.
The way Fiske and Gorman choose statements to evaluate is a bit more random than the rating process. A statement has to have a "Hey, Martha" quality to it, as in, "Hey, Martha, is this really true?"
Timeliness also enters into the equation (the team was kept busy by Eric Cantor and others during the debt-limit negotiations), although it takes a day or two to check a statement. And there has to be something to check; an opinion, no matter how wacky, can be hard to pin down.
With only two guys (perhaps a third in due time) on the beat, they're bound to miss a few howlers, but both parties are covered, as well as all levels of government.
When I spoke with Fiske in August, he told me they would start the Bob-O-Meter in September, focusing on the governor's "truthiness." (Apologies to The Colbert Report .) And next year, the emphasis is on the Senate race between Allen and Tim Kaine, as well as congressional and state races.
Fiske finds that PolitiFact's service is valuable as more media outlets "present [the news] to you in a way that affirms your worldview," whether conservative or liberal.
And maybe, just maybe, parties and elected officials "will be more reluctant to make statements that are false," he says. I have a sneaking suspicion that PolitiFact won't be working itself out of a job any time soon.