FactCheck aims to keep politicians honest

The project was founded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and is staffed by student fellows, professionals

· January 12, 2012, 8:03 pm   ·  Updated January 13, 2012, 11:00 am

As the Republican primaries heat up, FactCheck.org is urging voters to adopt a healthy dose of skepticism about the presidential candidates.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization — a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center established in 2003 — is attempting to reduce the level of deception in the American political system, one dishonest claim at a time.

“We consider ourselves to be voter advocates,” said Deputy Director of FactCheck Eugene Kiely. “We bring a lot of knowledge to this, so we can spot false and misleading comments pretty readily.”

He is referring to the small but formidable truth squad assembled at FactCheck, which includes veteran journalists like Brooks Jackson, director of the organization and a reporter with more than 30 years of experience at The Wall Street Journal and CNN.

Jackson — along with five other full-time staff members — is joined by five part-time undergraduate fellows who are selected through a competitive application process.

College junior and FactCheck fellow Michael Morse was invited to apply for the internship during his freshman year by Communications professor and Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

“I badly want to ‘die knowing [something],’ as Walker Evans famously said, and FactCheck is an avenue to do just that,” he said.

Together, the team monitors national political races, heavily contested Senate races, key gubernatorial races, TV advertisements and Sunday talk shows for questionable claims made by candidates.

FactCheck has already published content in response to multiple false claims made by several Republican presidential candidates on NBC’s Meet the Press debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 8.

For example, one recent FactCheck article referenced employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to disqualify Mitt Romney’s claim that, as Massachusetts governor from 2003-07, “we created more jobs in Massachusetts than Barack Obama has created in the entire country.”

“We go to the sources themselves,” said Kiely, who stressed the meticulous research and data analysis process undertaken to back up each counterclaim FactCheck makes.

Over the years, the organization’s reporting has gained it a strong fan base. The website currently has 80,000 subscribers who receive FactCheck’s weekly email updates and is working with ABC News, Yahoo News, The Philadelphia Inquirer and USA Today to share its online content, Kiely added.

On Jan. 5, the Annenberg Public Policy Center launched a video counterpart to FactCheck — called FlackCheck.org — to host short clips that parody false claims made in political advertising.

The concept of FlackCheck, Jamieson explained, is to target the growing audience that no longer turns to traditional print media for news.

She sees FlackCheck as an avenue to promote the content that is already published on FactCheck by providing a humorous outlet.

“I’m hoping that we’re dipping our veggies in chocolate in a way that will increase the likelihood that we eat the broccoli that is factcheck.org,” Jamieson said.

Kiely also sees potential in FlackCheck.

“The overall aim is to make ourselves as accessible to the voting population as possible,” he said.

Although Kiely believes the work being produced at FactCheck is increasing the transparency of the political process, he does not envision a future in which the organization will no longer need to exist.

“As long as there is a lot of money that’s spent on campaign ads, and as long as holding office gives you access to a lot of power and government money, there’s going to be a need for somebody to hold people in power accountable,” he said.

College senior Scott Blackburn, another FactCheck fellow, agreed.

“Many times politicians aren’t being actively malicious, they just don’t care if the facts are straight,” he said. “It’s just part of the political game.”

For Morse, the internship has even made him rethink his career aspirations.

“Before I started the job, I was very interested in our political system and actually had aspirations to work in Washington, or maybe even on the Hill,” Morse said. “I am still very interested in the political system, but definitely have abandoned those plans to jump into the political arena — I’ll stick to journalism.”

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