Bill Adair is one of the lucky ones. His bosses at the St. Petersburg Times let him experiment with a new way of delivering news and do it full time, he told me in a recent e-mail Q&A. Adair founded PolitiFact.com and runs it with a small staff of writers and fact checkers from the St. Pete Times and its sister publication, Congressional Quarterly. Not only do they check the claims of candidates running for president, but they rate the truthfulness of those claims on a scale from "True" to "Pants-on-fire."
During one of the most exciting and historic races in presidential history, the site helps voters easily cut through the noise. "Some of my colleagues at the paper bristled when I floated the idea of
us checking the 'truth,'" Adair wrote. "But I think it's really just synonymous with
being accurate." In an era of journalism when everybody is talking about experimenting with the news, Adair and PolitiFact appear to be among the few doing it successfully.
Text and Ideas: How did PolitiFact come about? Whose idea was the whole thing?
Bill Adair: It was my idea, but I got immediate encouragement from my editors. I've covered the last two presidential campaigns and recall sometimes being frustrated that we in the press were simply repeating claims by the candidates that I knew weren't true. We did it because we felt it was up to the voters to sort out. I thought it would be helpful to have a Web site where we fact-checked the individual claims by the candidates, so voters could see what's true.
I think it's the role of the news media -- indeed, our obligation -- to tell voters what's true and what's not. Even when we have fact-checked in the past, we've been too wishy-washy. But with PolitiFact, we make the call.
Text and Ideas: Explain the "Truth-O-Meter." Where did it come from? What was the inspiration for it?
Bill Adair: Those kind of meters have been widely used, so I can't claim credit for it, but I got a lot of good feedback in 2000 when we used one to make a tongue-in-cheek prediction of Sen. Bob Graham's chances of being picked as Gore's running mate. I called it "the Graham-O-Meter."
The idea of the Truth-O-Meter is to give voters a simple way to know the relative truth of a statement. They don't have to read our entire article; they can see at a glance by seeing the Truth-O-Meter.
Text and Ideas: The site is focused on fact checking -- it even has the word "fact" in the title. Yet everywhere a reader turns, he or she is confronted with the word "truth." Aren't they two different things? Why use the word "truth" so frequently?
Bill Adair: I think voters have gotten cynical and believe there's not much truth in politics any more. But our site, by making rulings on the candidates' statements, helps them decide what's true and what's not.
Of course, part of it is marketing. We call it the Truth-O-Meter, after all. And our song is called "Gimme the Truth." But I like that. The truth is what we're seeking! (Sounds like a Springsteen lyric!)
Some of my colleagues at the paper bristled when I floated the idea of us checking the "truth," but I think it's really just synonymous with being accurate. We've gotten a few e-mails from readers who think we've over-promised. But we've gotten far more feedback, from dozens and dozens of readers, thanking us for the site. So I think we've struck the right balance.
Text and Ideas: Checking out claims by political candidates is a long-standing tradition in journalism. How does the Web change that tradition? Are there more claims to check? Do you take advantage of ways besides text to tell the facts?
Bill Adair: It's a long-standing tradition, but that doesn't mean we've done it well. Too many "fact-checking" stories don't really clarify the facts. You read to the end and you think, "So which side is true?" The truth (there's that word again!) is that we've been too wishy-washy and we were afraid to say to readers that a candidate was lying.
I'd say that's still the case with a lot of fact-checking stories I read. I think my colleagues have been scared into creating false balance. They feel every point needs a counterpoint. But PolitiFact proves it's okay to make a call. Indeed, that's what readers want.
The Web makes it easy because we can sort things for readers so they can easily explore our databases to check a particular candidate or an issue. We don't just have a blog with metatags. We have a rich database that readers can tap into.
Text and Ideas: How do you handle the workload? With print journalists doing more now than ever online, does checking facts for the website just add one more time-consuming thing to an already busy journalist's life?
Bill Adair: I'm working full-time on PolitiFact and am fortunate that my editors believed in the project so much that they would free me of my other obligations.
Text and Ideas: The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which also runs the competing website FactCheck.org, recently studied how often major U.S. newspapers ran stories that checked the facts of ads -- sometimes called ad-watch stories. The study found that St. Petersburg Times wasn't even in the top five during the last election cycle. It also found more than ever, newspapers are writing these kinds of stories. What do you think has prompted this energy to dig into candidates' claims both at the Times and nationwide?
Bill Adair: Yeah, the fact we weren't in the top five last time was one of the motivating factors for me. We didn't do nearly as much fact-checking in 2006 as we should have. But I'm proud we’re now making up for it.
I thought the Annenberg study was encouraging, but we need to keep it up. We need to do more of these stories and we shouldn't be scared into false balance. It's okay, when you're sorting the facts, to say which ones are right.