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The truth is PolitiFact.com
By NEIL BROWN
Published September 2, 2007
Times Washington bureau chief and now also PolitiFact.com editor Bill Adair poses in front of Air Force One in Ocala during the '04 campaign.
"You're trying to make Bush look silly."
The caller that mid November day during the 2000 recount saga was angry about the front-page photo we published of George W. Bush - a pretty innocuous one to my eye. She suspected a vast left-wing conspiracy. "You want people to think he's not presidential."
A half-hour later I took another call of complaint about the same photo.
"You're purposely trying to make Bush look presidential," the Al Gore supporter griped. "Can't you people just tell the truth?"
I was reminded of those calls and many others like them as we prepared for today's launch of PolitiFact.com, a new Web site from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly that scrutinizes the accuracy of claims made by presidential candidates.
Sorting out the "truth" may seem a treacherous endeavor in such a politically polarized time. But we believe our journalists can play a greater role as an honest broker for voters bewildered by the barrage of campaign talk.
So in a move rare for a news organization, we're dedicating a team of reporters and researchers to meticulously examine the rhetoric of candidates and their partisans, and then make a call: Is the claim true or not?
You might think such work would be standard journalistic fare. But many news organizations can spend less money and get less grief if their political reporting sticks to stenography and puffery.
It's easier to record the words and claims of competing candidates than to vet their accuracy. It's easier to write about the strategy of using negative advertising than to do the painstaking research to sort out whether the claim is actually true or false.
What's more, cynical political operatives, partisan pundits on cable TV and talk radio, and ideological bloggers are good at manipulating "facts" to manufacture an aura of accuracy and attack those who would challenge them.
"News organizations are reluctant to get into this kind of thing because it takes an enormous commitment of resources," said Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, a Web site run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "And you take a pounding from both sides, Democrats and Republicans."
To be sure, there are still frequent "ad watch" stories by local news organizations, and national newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post continue to report vigorously.
Nonetheless, PolitiFact.com will stand out for the way it directly evaluates candidate claims. Its signature feature is the Truth-O-Meter, in which editors rate each claim from the most truthful to the most ridiculous, which could be tagged "pants on fire."
The St. Petersburg Times brings some advantages to this work.
We are independent, both of corporate chains and of political affiliations. Our corporate sibling - Congressional Quarterly - has an unmatched reputation for accurate, nonpartisan journalism about politics and policy. PolitiFact's team includes the research and reporting departments of both publications.
Moreover, we are true believers in journalism as an instrument of democracy. Even as we seek to reach customers in new ways, we see our primary obligation as helping citizens participate fully in the democratic process. We try to meet that obligation by publishing strong newspapers and Web sites. PolitiFact fits with that mission. And if this effort succeeds, we anticipate widening the scope to state and local candidates.
The guiding force behind PolitiFact - and the creator of the Truth-O-Meter - is Bill Adair, our Washington bureau chief.
Adair, an Arizona native, has been with the Times for 18 years. He covered local news, transportation and aviation before joining the Washington staff in 1997. He has covered two presidential campaigns, has written extensively about the Supreme Court, Congress and lobbying, and has traveled with both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Adair will be the full-time writer and editor. It's a natural role for him dating back decades; 22 years ago in his senior thesis at Arizona State University, he analyzed how the hospital lobby killed a state health care initiative with an unchecked campaign of lies and exaggerations.
Now, with so many candidates working so hard to offer positions that are less about reality and more about staying "on message," he makes the case that PolitiFact's time has come.
"With the torrent of confusing information in campaigns, I hear this all the time: 'Just tell me whether it's true,'" says Adair.
We invite you to give it a try. And if you have heard a candidate make a claim only to wonder whether it's true, drop us a line.