Politicians modify words, prepare evidence to satisfy fact-checkers
Of the various ways to respond to critical fact checks, perhaps the easiest is to simply modify or even drop a faulty message. But the most effective of all might be to establish internal processes and checks to make sure that political messages stand up to scrutiny in the first place. In many cases, a little preemptive precision is all it takes to make one’s pants practically fireproof — or to turn a “False” into a “True,” as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker demonstrated in a debate during the Republican’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Walker, his Democratic opponent and their combined supporters traded a continuous stream of jobs-related numbers and claims in that race, and journalists at PolitiFact Wisconsin seemed to write about little else. Between the start of the year and the time the two candidates met for their first debate in October, the fact-checkers based at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had examined two dozen jobs-specific statements. And of those 24 fact checks, 15 were rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire — including a False for a Walker TV ad that went up the day before the big debate.1
Given that record, the Wisconsin PolitiFact unit was a little surprised during the debate when the governor used a revised version of the same claim. This time, however, instead of saying the state had ranked third for job growth in the Midwest “in the last year,” as the TV ad had put it, Walker carefully specified a date range: from July 2013 to July 2014. He also clarified that the state ranked fourth in the more recent August-to-August data — just as PolitiFact had explained in its story the previous morning.2
“He was parroting our statement,” editor Greg Borowski said. “It was almost like he had gone back through and wanted to get things just so. … He went right through our rationale.”
Most fact-checkers can victoriously recall times when politicians they covered modified their rhetoric after being called out for a misstatement in one of their stories. Those events are one way to measure the impact that editorial truth-squadding has on politics. But for the people who work for those politicians and the other organizations that support them, the victories should also be measured by the negative fact checks they avoided. That process usually begins with research, either gathered by staff or consultants or by state and national parties.
It’s pretty time-consuming because you kind of go down the rabbit hole with these guys.
Neil Newhouse, the Republican pollster, does not write or produce ads for the candidates and other political organizations that hire his firm. His job is to test effectiveness of the language and messages that end up in their ads — but only after those lines of attack are rigorously inspected by political researchers and lawyers. “They are nitpickers,” Newhouse said of these behind-the-scenes, in-house fact-checkers. “It’s a negotiation. … They have to approve it before it can go in the field.”
This different kind of fact-checking process is especially important for third-party political ads (advertisements produced by anyone other than candidates and their campaign committees) since broadcasters can reject or yank those ads if they are found to be inaccurate.
Given all the internal fact-checking, Newhouse bristles when the press finds faults with ads because a fact is presented out of context. In this respect, political pros and the press sometimes look at “facts” through different lenses.
From Newhouse’s point of view, facts are facts and the context is an opponents’ problem. In other words, it’s not a campaign’s job to look at a fact “from the other guy’s point of view.” If, for instance, an ad accurately criticizes an opponent for a handful of votes, Newhouse said the accuser has no obligation to explain all the other times when the opponent voted the other way. Fact-checkers will say “we may not be telling the whole story,” he said. “Well, yeah, let the other guy do that.”
Those kinds of arguments may not win the day with fact-checkers. But reporters say they can tell when a political organization has at least done its homework — assembling data and other background information to establish their claims were factual. Mark Binker, a reporter who has done regular fact-checking segments for WRAL-TV in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area, said he saw a lot of that kind of preparation during that state’s close 2014 Senate race, when outside groups spent millions buying TV time on stations like his. When he called those groups with questions about their ads, Binker said most of them “expected it” and “had ready-mix responses” to support their claims. The ones who didn’t were the ones who “just don’t seem to care that much about whether something they put on TV is true or not.”
Large political operations that work at the national level — including party committees, independent advocacy groups and presidential campaigns — often appoint a spokesperson to deal specifically with fact-checkers. In the 2012 Obama campaign, deputy press secretary Carscaden got this role, in part because she had done opposition research and policy work for the Democratic National Committee, and in part because she had organized rapid-response communications for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
“It was clear early on that this [fact-checking] was going to be a large part of the world,” Carscaden said. “It was helpful to have a point person.” That said, she also acknowledged that the process of dealing with fact-checkers’ questions could be draining. “It’s pretty time-consuming because you kind of go down the rabbit hole with these guys.”
For smaller political teams at the state and local level, that process can be even more time-consuming. Garren Shipley, a former communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia, said that was certainly his experience the 2012 Senate race. “During that campaign, the requests for documentation from PolitiFact became a significant drain on campaign resources,” he said. “It almost turned into a legal discovery process.”
And the process does not always end once the journalists have made their call. Sometimes political operatives will continue to lobby and appeal, even after a fact check is published or broadcast. They’ll even try to get advance clearance on claims, especially when they are returning to a message or point that’s already been subjected to some level of criticism.
Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org recalled a conference call with a senior adviser to a president candidate after a number of national news organizations, including his, repeatedly questioned the accuracy of attacks on their opponent’s voting record. The question concerned the number of times the candidate’s opponent had voted for something in Congress — a number the fact-checkers said was inflated because it unfairly included procedural votes.
“What’s the right number?” Jackson recalled the adviser pleading, wanting to find a figure that the fact-checkers would accept.
“They don’t pay me to write your ads,” Jackson responded.