Keeping the Campaigns Honest

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  • Read Later a website that monitors 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., a watchdog group started in 2003 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, monitors statements and advertising by the Presidential campaigns and independent political groups — in the process exposing one or two lies every day. (The day after the first presidential debate, posted a 10-point report of less than honest moments.) Its work has become a go-to resource for bloggers, mainstream media and the candidates' themselves. So is this campaign less honest? TIME talked to director Brooks Jackson.

You have skewered both presidential campaigns for exaggerations and outright lies. Do you make a conscious effort to analyze both campaigns equally?
We certainly give them equal scrutiny. We're looking at everything that comes out of those campaigns in terms of TV advertising, debates, major interviews, major speeches. We do not ever try to balance a criticism of one candidate with a criticism of another. We take each individual claim or statement on its merits and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes they pile up more on one side and sometimes on another, but that's not our fault.

Where are the chips falling?
It goes back and forth. Early on, we were getting lots of gripes from Republicans because there were a lot of things about McCain we were criticizing. Lately, it looks like there's a pile of Obama claims. People always ask us if we have a rating system. You'd want to make some allowance for the big whoppers versus the little ones, [but] that'd just be our opinion. It's the voters' job to figure out what they're going to make of all of this.

Some other news organizations have started their own fact checking operations, including the Washington Post's The Fact Checker. Do they raise your game?
Politifact is the other one that's pretty comparable to what we do. It's sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. We don't view them as competition, we view them as colleagues. The more the better on this.

Why is important?
You're asking me to brag here. Are we important? I don't know, but I am encouraged to see other news organizations doing the sort of thing that we do more aggressively. If we've had anything to do with that — providing an example or whatever — then I'm really pleased.

It ought to be an embarrassment to any news organization that doesn't do this sort of thing that we even exist. Why should there be a niche for this? This is core First Amendment responsibility.

Do you guys get tips from the campaigns?
Sometimes. We encourage it. We actually had the opposition research folks from both major political parties in here for brown-bag lunches. It's been a standard offer of mine, ever since we started, to any candidate or party — if you see something on the other side that you can prove is wrong, please let us know. We're going to check it out. We're not taking your word for it.

How do you do your research?
If an ad quotes somebody from a newspaper, we look to see if they are quoted accurately. If they show a headline, we check to see if the headline was actually in the papers. Sometimes they make them up. I'm not kidding. They blurb some of these things in ways that would make a Hollywood publicist blush.

An ad will have a vote number in it. You can pull up the text of the bill and the vote on it. You can read the amendment and you can read the debate.

Do you have any examples?
This liberal group called VoteVets ran ads against [Virginia Senator] George Allen and several other senators in different states saying that they voted against body armor for the troops and they gave a vote number. You looked at that vote number and it was a general bill to give an extra billion dollars to the National Guard and Reserves for equipment. But there wasn't any mention of body armor in it. It was an absolutely, 100% false ad. Case closed.

Is this campaign less honest than those in the past?
I don't know. I was working pretty hard in 2004. I think that twisting and distorting and sometimes even falsifying facts — even self-delusion — is just a standard part of the democratic process and probably has been since the Greeks invented it. Campaigns tend to be deceptive, just by their very nature. debunked the McCain campaign's use of Do your reports get twisted and used unfairly?
This was a clear violation of our copyright policy, which basically says please steal our stuff, just don't distort it and they distorted it. We have absolutely no objection to a candidate accurately quoting us. But we really have to push back hard when people distort what we say because our credibility is at stake. In this case, they knew perfectly well they were misrepresenting what we said. It was really outrageous and we kind of went off on them I guess. We were not amused.

What have been the most egregious distortions in the campaign so far?
Just about anything McCain has done on Obama's tax policies. We've called that a pattern of misrepresentation and it's continuing and it's working. I see that a couple of polls show 50% or more people think Obama's going to increase their taxes, when in fact he's going to cut them for 80-90% of people, or so he says.

On the Obama side, the claim that McCain somehow supports cutting Social Security benefits. They don't specify that they're talking about a cut in relation to the growth of future benefits for people who haven't been born yet. When people hear that they think Grandma's check is going to be cut. And that's just a complete falsehood and they know that.

Do you have any evidence that you cause the candidates to be more truthful?
I think that's too much to hope for. It seems to me that our goal should be to help voters who are exposed to all this stuff sort it all out, so they can cast an intelligent vote.

Are you having fun?
Too much fun. It's completely ruined my fishing season. My weekends are shot. But it's exhilarating work and I'm happy to be doing it. And I'm happy you're noticing.