The politics of myth-debunking

Even before the 1,017-page America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 was made public, the Internet was abuzz with rumors and misinformation about the landmark health care reform legislation.

To some observers, the health care debate is politics as usual. But for Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, a project of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, it is a golden opportunity to increase public knowledge and understanding of the facts.

Jackson and a former CNN colleague launched the popular political myth-debunking web site with little fanfare during the presidential race of 2004. But Vice President Dick Cheney’s mention of the site during a televised debate thrust Jackson and his staff into the national spotlight.

After a post-2008 election lull, the health care debate has reignited interest in the site, and today it has 84,000 subscribers. More than 940,000 unique visitors are checking it each week. Few have likely read all 1,017 pages of H.R. 3200. But Jackson and his staff have. And they stand ready to sort out the fiction from fact to answer your questions.

Q. How and when did the idea for the project come about?
A.
It really goes back to my work at CNN in 1990 when I started there and got called in by the political director who had developed some graphic techniques CNN wanted to use to go after false and misleading political ads. I was drafted to do that. After I left, I was invited by my colleague to the Annenberg Public Policy Center to continue fact checking and watching political claims on the Internet and the result is FactCheck.org, which has succeeded beyond any expectation either of us had at the time. It’s just really gratifying and a pleasant surprise to see how many ordinary voters use the service. … I thought originally that it would be used by reporters and watched by political insiders and junkies. There’s been some of that. But I don’t think we ever dreamed we’d have so many visits to the site and so many subscribers.

Q. Your mission is to “reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” That sounds like quite a daunting task.
A.
Well, there are seven people including myself.  … We’ve expanded the offerings on the web site quite a bit since 2004. Initially we started with two, so that was tough; it was like living over the store. Since then we’ve added a feature called “Ask FactCheck.” We got so many questions from people—particularly about these bogus e-mails people love to forward.  We now have the “FactCheck Wire” which is a venue for shorter items, more like a blog. We’ve got an educational offshoot—FactCheckEd.org. After the last election, we discovered that about 10 percent of users who responded to our survey were teachers. A lot of them were using this stuff in class—a whole audience I hadn’t set out to target found us. We try to help teachers help kids learn to do this stuff on their own and not be so easily fooled by all the deception they’re subjected to.

Q. Are you finding that a lot of nonpolitical people are tuning in?
A.
Absolutely. The initial surprise to me back in 2004 was how many ordinary citizens were interested and really hungry for this type of information, which they were not getting from mainstream news outlets. The mainstream news media organizations need to do this sort of thing. They ought to be ashamed that we even exist. Why should it be the job of an Ivy League think tank to do this kind of stuff? This is what people really should expect from their local news outlet, which has vastly more money and staff power than we do. Why does the First Amendment exist if they’re not going to exercise it by exposing false political claims when people try to fool the public?

Q. How has the economic downturn and downsizing of major news outlets helped feed the growth of alternative news and information web sites and blogs like FactCheck.org?
A.
I think we can claim some credit for inspiring a little boom in this sort of stuff. PolitiFact.com, which is a project of the St. Petersburg Times, quite openly cited us as their inspiration when they started up two years ago. This year they won the Pulitzer Prize for Enterprise Reporting. ... We take a parental pride in that. It shows this type of reporting is valued ... and I hope this is a signal to the rest of the news business that there ought to be more of this. I think the trend is in the right direction.

Q. How do you get your arms around an issue as big as healthcare reform?
A.
We always start with the claims—the ones we’re hearing the most and the ones we’re getting asked about the most. We do what we can to get down to bedrock and find out what the real facts are. It’s just basic reporting. For example, when [former Lieutenant Governor of New York] Betsy McCaughey first claimed there was rationing of health care in the stimulus bill ... you read what she said, you call her up, and you ask her, ‘What section of the bill are you talking about, because we can’t find it?’ … So you find out what claims people are making. What’s their basis for it? And are they right? Did this thing they quote their opponent as saying—did they actually say that? Is that all they said? Was the quote taken out of context? Is there any dispute over what was said? Is there a recording so we can see which conflicting version is right?

Q. Are you ever able to get to the bottom of who is sending out these chain emails?
A.
No, I wish I could, but there’s no way anybody’s ever found to trace one of these chain emails upstream to find who originated it. They tend to evolve as they get passed from hand to hand and people add their own observations. … The only case I know of where we actually found somebody who admitted authorship is that Photoshop job of Sarah Palin in an American flag bikini holding an air rifle. Just because that one was so funny and an obvious (forgery), someone finally claimed credit for it and we were able to do an interview with them.

Originally published on September 17, 2009