FactCheck.org turns 15 years old today.
Since our launch on Dec. 5, 2003, fact-checking political claims has become a worldwide phenomenon, with 162 fact-checking websites currently active, according to the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University. Journalists gather annually at “Global Fact-Checking Summits.”
There was very little fact-checking when we launched. I wrote at the time: “This is going to be a fun job — and somebody has to do it.” Now, lots of good journalists and several major news organizations are doing it, thank goodness. But the volume of misinformation is growing, too.
When we started, the internet itself was barely a dozen years old. The spread of false rumors and lies through viral emails was just starting to become a problem. Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard sophomore, still a few weeks away from launching Facebook from his dorm room in February 2004. Twitter was something birds did.
Our coverage of the 2004 presidential election found plenty of deception and misinformation by both Democrats and Republicans. Squarely calling out this misinformation attracted much more public attention than I had anticipated. I was interviewed by dozens of other journalists, and even made an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show.”
When Vice President Dick Cheney plugged us during his televised debate with Democratic rival John Edwards, the press attention sent hundreds of thousands of new visitors to our website, so many that our rudimentary server crashed and had to be beefed up for the remainder of the campaign. We had arrived.
Following our initial success, others launched similar fact-checking projects. The British TV network Channel 4 launched its own “FactCheck” in 2005, at first focusing on the parliamentary elections that year and later reviving the feature and making it permanent. In 2007 we welcomed PolitiFact.com, established by Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times. And a few weeks later we welcomed the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” feature, overseen initially by Michael Dobbs and later made permanent by Glenn Kessler.
By then the number of newspaper and broadcast news stories fact-checking the claims of politicians was increasing, according to two studies commissioned that year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, our parent organization. And the public seemed to love fact-checks, according to journalists who spoke at a conference we sponsored in Washington on Nov. 9, 2007.
The journalistic establishment came to love fact-checking, too. PolitiFact was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the 2008 election. And we were given the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on deceptive claims for and against the Affordable Care Act.
Also, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences has honored FactCheck.org for being the best Politics site on the internet — for nine of the past 11 years.
The fact-checking movement continued to spread internationally. In October 2010, the first of what would become several Latin American fact-checking sites went live. We were informal advisers to the founders of that site, Chequeado.com in Argentina, as we had been earlier to founders of Channel 4 FactCheck in the United Kingdom.
Over the years, we expanded our coverage to include new features: Ask FactCheck in 2007, Players Guide in 2010 and SciCheck in 2015. Shortly after the 2016 election, we and others partnered with Facebook to identify and debunk hoaxes and malicious falsehoods posted on the social media site.
And we started a year-round fellowship program for University of Pennsylvania undergraduates in 2010. When Kathleen Hall Jamieson recruited me to fact-check the 2004 elections and post findings on the internet, I had the assistance of one young researcher. But FactCheck now has a staff of seven full-time professional journalists headed by my able successor, Eugene Kiely, plus five undergraduate fellows and myself, mostly retired but still working part time.
Our reach has grown, too.
Our articles are seen not only on our own website, but also by millions of additional readers and viewers through partnerships with major media outlets. Our articles regularly appear on Microsoft’s MSN.com, USA Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer and on the websites of NBC owned and operated stations in major U.S. cities and Gannett newspapers.
We are entering the fourth year of our collaboration with CNN’s Jake Tapper and “State of the Union” to produce weekly fact-checking segments that appear on the CNN Politics website. We also partner with NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations on weekly fact-checking segments that are made available to the local NBC stations and affiliates.
More Fact-Checking, But More Misinformation
So the journalistic resources devoted to fact-checking have grown, and reach millions. But the volume of deception and fakery has grown, too, and spreads easily via the internet and social media. Consider the “birther” nonsense that followed President Barack Obama for his eight years in office.
When conservative bloggers questioned whether Obama was born in the USA, we were the first to ask for and receive a digital image of Obama’s “certification of live birth” issued by the state of Hawaii, attesting to his birth in Honolulu at 7:24 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1961. That would have been legally sufficient to get him a U.S. passport, and should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.
Author Jerome Corsi, for one, claimed the digital image was “fake.” So we sent staffers to view and photograph the actual document, including the official signature and raised seal. The director of Hawaii’s Department of Health also confirmed publicly that Obama was born in Honolulu. But even that additional evidence didn’t stop the bogus, partisan conspiracy theories.
In 2011 those false claims were taken up by none other than Donald Trump. We then cataloged a number of incorrect statements Trump made about the matter, and said: “[W]hen it comes to getting facts straight, he fouls up again and again on the basics of President Barack Obama’s birth.”
Nevertheless, Trump continued to fan speculation that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. until Sept. 16, 2016, near the end of his own presidential campaign. And even then he made two false claims, blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the controversy, and claiming that he himself “finished it,” when in fact he had prolonged it.
Over our 15 years, we’ve criticized any number of both Democrats and Republicans for twisting facts or making false or baseless claims. We’ve always tried our best to apply the same standards of factual accuracy to everyone, regardless of party or political philosophy.
During Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, for example, we called him out for TV ads claiming that his GOP rival Mitt Romney was a “corporate raider” who “shipped jobs to China and Mexico.” We pointed out that two examples cited by the Obama campaign occurred after Romney left his venture capital firm Bain Capital, and was running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The Obama campaign then claimed in a six-page letter sent to other reporters that we were wrong, that Romney was somehow still running Bain in New York from Utah. We rejected their arguments publicly and stood our ground. Our headline: “FactCheck to Obama Camp: Your Complaint is All Wet.”
Later, new documents unearthed by Fortune magazine supported our conclusion. Fortune reported: “[C]ontemporaneous Bain documents show that Romney was indeed telling the truth about no longer having operational input at Bain,” even though he remained an owner.
We also dueled with Obama over his infamous claim that “if you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan.” That promise unraveled in 2013, when insurers began to change individual market policies to adhere to the Affordable Care Act. But we had been writing for years — since 2009, before the ACA was passed — that Obama couldn’t keep his pledge.
‘King of Whoppers’
But in our 15 years, Trump takes the cake. Long before any but a few thought he had a chance of becoming president, in our annual wrapup of political deceptions, on Dec. 21, 2015, we awarded Trump the title, “King of Whoppers.” No other, before or since, has earned that title.
We said then: “In the 12 years of FactCheck.org’s existence, we’ve never seen his match,” adding: “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” The same remains true nearly three years later.
Others agree. The Post’s Kessler keeps a database of “false or misleading” public statements Trump has made since taking office as president. As of Oct. 30, Kessler counted 6,420 such claims in 649 days in office, an average of just under 10 per day.
Sadly, our nonpartisan approach doesn’t sit well with some. A study by the Duke University Reporter’s Lab found a big divide, with those on the right more likely to denigrate fact-checking than are those on the left. We think that says more about them than about us.
I think what I wrote 15 years ago bears repeating. I said: “I can think of no better job for a journalist than holding politicians accountable for getting the facts right, regardless of their party or political philosophy.”
We still hold with the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”