Reporter's Notebook: Watching the presidential debate with FactCheck

FactCheck, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, hopes to set the record straight

· October 4, 2012, 12:48 am

I hadn’t expected the quiet that permeated FactCheck’s back-end on the night of the first presidential debate.

I expected some kind of frenzy, not two quiet offices with people calmly watching the debate, typing on their computers and conversing via email. But I learned it was a quiet full of intense concentration and, for once, I watched a presidential debate in silence.

I watched the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 with FactCheck, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“Very nice, with their red and blue ties,” FactCheck Deputy Director Eugene Kiely quipped to me as President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney walked onto stage. “You can tell them apart — who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat.”

Kiely’s room, an orderly space filled with political books, had one computer screen running the debate and another open to work on.

During the debate, I alternatively peered over Kiely’s shoulder and watched the screen with the candidates and their ties. As I saw him typing on HootSuite, a social media manager dashboard, I rushed to refresh FactCheck’s Twitter feed on my laptop. In response to Obama’s claim that Romney wants to “double down” on policies that led to the recession, the organization tweeted a link to its analysis of what caused the recession.

Throughout the debate itself, Kiely said, FactCheck tweets links to what it has already analyzed in the past. The first direct, live tweet call-out was leveled at Romney: FactCheck debunked the former Massachusetts governor’s claim that he could pay for $5 trillion in tax cuts without raising the deficit or raising taxes on the middle class.

But Obama was under the lens next.

“That’s wrong,” Kiely muttered as the president spoke of taxes, and turned to the computer. I chuckled.

Throughout the debate, other fact-checking organizations, like PolitiFact and The Washington Post’s relatively new fact-checking website, filled my feed with tidbits and posts on what analysis to expect later that night. The organizations are mostly the same, according to Kiely, but he described a few differences between FactCheck and the others.

“[We have] no way of judging ‘mostly true,’” he said, referencing PolitiFact’s ranking system. “We would never call someone a liar. We’d need to know the intent of a person.”

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the evening was hearing commentary not from my politically minded friends or my Twitter feed, but in person from someone whose job it is to analyze these speeches and debates.

“He didn’t tell us one thing on what he would do for Social Security,” Kiely said of Obama’s remarks — or lack thereof.

On debate night, only three people stayed in the office, as much of FactCheck’s work is done remotely by email. Each person, in and out of the office, is assigned a piece to do and then the work is aggregated in the office.

“There’s no magic to staying in the office,” Deputy Managing Editor Robert Farley said. He shared a room with D’Angelo Gore , a FactCheck staff writer.

“It was a lot of old stuff we’d heard,” Farley said after the debate, as he scrolled through his emails. He wanted to pitch a piece fact-checking the exchange about Romney’s tax plan.

Simultaneously, Gore worked on uploading images for the site and aggregating old research PolitiFact had already conducted.

FactCheck’s primary aim is to provide information to voters rather than to force candidates to change their rhetoric.

“We’d go nuts if we were trying to measure our success by having candidates change what they say,” Kiely said.

However, he does not fault either campaign for being more dishonest than the other.

“It’s remarkably even,” he said. “I think it’s just because it’s a really competitive race.”

On Oct. 3, once FactCheck has uploaded all of its analyses on the candidates’ claims, I’ll see if his statement still holds true.

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