An Interview With the Founder of PolitiFact, During a Season of Distorted Reality - Pacific Standard

An Interview With the Founder of PolitiFact, During a Season of Distorted Reality

Has fact-checking been rendered obsolete by the post-fact carnival of American electoral politics? Bill Adair says: not yet.
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Bill Adair is a kind of dean of American fact-checkers: He founded PolitiFact in 2007, accepted a Pulitzer in 2009 for the organization’s work, and recently helped create the International Fact-Checking Network.

The practice is at an interesting cross-roads. Fact-checking is more prevalent than ever; by one count, 47 fact-check efforts are now underway in the United States, evaluating whether public figures’ statements are true, false, or somewhere in between. Versions of PolitiFact’s colorful Truth-o-Meter tool — which rates claims from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” — have proliferated across the media landscape. The New York Times assembled teams to live fact-check the debates this year. CNN has received attention for onscreen fact-checking some especially far-fetched claims.

At the same time, it feels as though American politics is journeying deeper into some fragmented, post-reality twilight zone. In particular, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s eagerness to repeat blatantly false statements seems unprecedented in modern American politics.

Is this all a sign that fact-checking is more relevant than ever? Or has the method been rendered obsolete by the post-fact carnival of American electoral politics?What role can fact-checking play in creating shared spaces for public discourse?

To answer some of these questions, I caught up with Adair in his office at Duke University, where he is a Knight Professor.

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Is there actually more lying going on during this election?

Trump is, from a fact-checking standpoint, a real outlier. If you look at his PolitiFact report card, more than 50 percent of his statements are rated false or pants-on-fire. We’ve never seen that before from any presidential candidate, even in the primaries, with the possible exception of the early days fact-checking Michele Bachmann.

Does having a candidate willing to speak such blatant falsehoods mean that fact-checking is more relevant? Or does it indicate that it’s less relevant, because apparently nobody cares about lies after all?

Well, that’s not true that nobody cares about lies. We know of this incredible record that Trump has because there has been so much fact-checking — not just by PolitiFact. Many other news organizations have gotten into the fact-checking business.

Is this the post-truth election, as people have claimed? No. It’s actually the thank-goodness-there-are-fact-checkers election. We know that the candidates are using falsehoods and big exaggerations because there is so much good fact-checking, and, more than ever, fact-checking has been part of the conversation.

But you have candidates thriving, even when they have terrible fact-checking scores. Doesn’t that speak to some impotence in the tool?

Our goal as fact-checkers is not to get politicians to stop lying. That’s a ridiculous measurement of our success. You would not judge investigative reporting based on corruption: “Well, politicians are still corrupt, therefore investigative reporting’s a failure!”

Why did it take until 2007 for PolitiFact to exist?

You needed the Internet to be able to do the reporting necessary to do fact-checking, and you needed the Internet to be the distribution system. When fact-checking started in the late ’80s, it was primarily focused on campaign commercials. There was this ridiculous expectation on the part of newspaper editors — Well, we fact-checked that, it was on page 6C in Thursday’s paper! Did you read it? There was no easy way to go and look it up.

What PolitiFact did that helped to move the fact-checking movement along is make it easy to look up a candidate’s record, so you can see how many true or false statements they’ve been fact-checked for.

We can now live fact-check. So if you were watching [the last presidential debate] with our browser pop-up, you got live fact-checking on your screen as you watched the debate. That is revolutionary.

What’s the plan for this kind of tool?

Ultimately, my vision is that you get instant fact-checking when you’re watching a major speech, when you’re watching cable news, when you’re watching a political convention, a debate, whatever — the goal is that the fact-check pops up on the screen and says, Hey that thing that the senator just said is false.

I’m confident that the voice-to-text-to-fact-check technology will be refined to the point where that can be automatic. So you’re watching Fox News, and Sean Hannity says something, and the app detects it, finds the fact-check, and pops up the fact-check.

So this is like an artificial intelligence fact-checker?

Eventually.

PolitiFact advertises itself as trustworthy, in part, by talking about its rigorous editorial process. You have methods for choosing which claims to vet. How do you uphold that editorial process with something that’s automated, or at least much faster?

For the foreseeable future, the fact-checking that is delivered on those devices will be prepared by humans. The technology is essentially matching — identifying the claim from the text or the voice and then matching it with a previously published fact-check.

As fact-checking becomes more widespread, do you think there will be more partisanship in fact-checking — more of a balkanization of which fact-checkers people prefer?

I don’t think you can have partisan fact-checking. I disagree with Newt Gingrich, who said last week something to the extent of “we live in different universes.” No. There are not partisan facts.

True fact-checkers are objective journalist who look at all sides.

So when Hillary Clinton, in the first debate, kept sending people to the fact-checking tool on her website—

That is not fact-checking.

But it’s using the aesthetic, the design.

Exactly.

The thing I always laugh at is that, on Facebook or Twitter, somebody will say “Can someone recommend a good conservative fact-checker?”

But there is some subjectivity baked into the process, in terms of which claims you check, and where you draw the line between statements of opinion and statements of fact. Objective journalists are still making subjective choices.

Oh, absolutely. But they always have!

I think that transparency is key. You need to have your own guidelines on how you select what you fact-check.

But yeah, we’re human. We’re making subjective decisions. Lord knows the decision about a Truth-O-Meter rating is entirely subjective. As Angie Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, often says, the Truth-O-Meter is not a scientific instrument.

There’s a craving for a scientific instrument, though: Who will be the last bulwark against postmodernism? Someone please come here and give us facts!

Well, I think we’re doing that, in great ways. I haven’t totaled up how many fact-checks we’ve done in the presidential campaign, but last count, we had done about 270 on Trump and 300 or so on Clinton. Trump goes back to around 2010, when we started fact-checking him, and Clinton goes back to 2007. There’s a lot you can look at. So you can see, like, Trump: Half his statements are false! That’s amazing.

What makes a politician seem honest? Is it is that they don’t lie? Is it that they seem authentic and off-the-cuff?

You know, what impresses me is that there are plenty of politicians who use PolitiFact as a verb — who will say, I’m gonna be careful here because I may get PolitiFacted. Jeb Bush has said that at least two or three times. Chris Christie said it. Rick Perry said it. Politicians are aware that this is a new form of journalism that is holding them accountable, and they are mindful of it.

Does it stop lying? No. But it calls them out when they do.

You just named three politicians who were total flame-outs in the Republican primary. Is the lesson here that politicians should worry about being PolitiFacted, or that they should not worry about being PolitiFacted?

If we’re unhappy with politicians with poor records for falsehoods winning elections, it doesn’t seem like we should be blaming the fact-checkers.

In conversations about climate change, it’s not one set of evidence against another; instead, there are people who are challenging the entire concept of scientific evidence. Is there a point at which fact itself becomes a partisan or politicized concern?

I think my previous point still applies. The objective media has finally come around to nearly complete acceptance of the scientific facts of climate change. The partisan media has not. Maybe the focus should be on the problems of partisan media.

Who would you most want to be fact-checked?

I’d love to see fact-checking in countries where the press is not as free as it should be. So I’d love fact-checking in China, I’d love fact-checking in Syria, and more in Iran — there actually is a fact-checker in Iran that operates from Canada.

It sounds self-evident, but I think it’s an interesting question: Why should political leaders avoid lying?

Facts are the building blocks of political discourse. What the fact-checkers can do is help people agree on the facts so they can have a civil conversation about what we need to do to fix our problems.

Civil conversation! I’ve heard of that.

I’m hopeful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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