“Shooting the messenger” is an especially loud way for newsmakers to respond to a pesky news organization. Another approach is a lot quieter. So quiet, in fact, it means not even answering reporters’ questions.
In 2012, the Republican Party of Virginia’s public report on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s fact-checking unit said ignoring its reporters “would be justified in publicly indicting PolitiFact Virginia’s pattern of bias.” While leaving the decision to boycott the fact-checkers to each official and candidate, the party suggested “publicly refusing to participate in … their analyses unless and until such time the Richmond Times-Dispatch can substantively and publicly address the underlying concerns about their PolitiFact Virginia team’s lack of objectivity.”1
Republican Senate candidate George Allen took this tack — sort of. In reality, mixing both private and public channels, Allen’s campaign effectively “set up an elaborate system to keep communications open,” said Fiske, the Times-Dispatch’s PolitiFact editor.
The roundabout process began with a July 24 message on Allen’s blog from campaign manager Mike Thomas. Linking to the state party report, Thomas described the Allen team’s “growing concerns that PolitiFact Virginia was failing to live up to its claim of being an impartial referee that delivers objective analysis and rulings.” Now, the campaign manager said, PolitiFact was reaching out for information about statements Allen made at a debate a few days earlier.
“Due to Politifact Virginia’s past history,” Thomas wrote, “we thought we would let you, the public, decide whether the statements were factual. Below are the statements and the research that we believe backup the claims.”2
From then on, PolitiFact’s Fiske said, these kinds of posts became a way for the campaign to answer the reporters’ questions without actually answering them. “We would continue to send our inquiries to Allen’s campaign and instead of responding directly to us, they would post answers on their website with some verbiage to the effect of ‘look what PolitiFact is up to now,'” he said. “So even though they were not talking to us, they continued respond to all of our inquiries.” PolitiFact cited and linked to those posts in several stories.3
Political pros rarely go entirely incommunicado, since not answering a fact-checker’s question means not having a chance to tell their side of the story. But the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler recalled another example — a super PAC with whom he had difficult dealings during much of 2014. “They stopped speaking to me late in the campaign,” he said.
Kessler said the relationship became increasingly tense after he issued a series of back-to-back, multi-Pinocchio ratings about the group’s messaging. When the group stopped responding to his questions about their ads, he pressed for a reason. A senior staffer answered with a detailed complaint to one of Kessler’s bosses. The official wrote:
“Mr. Kessler is supposed to be doing a ‘fact check.’ Since I am not paid by the Washington Post, it is not my job to do his job. Our citations are listed on the screen and he can research them himself. And you will notice, I am not arguing Mr. Kessler’s analysis of the facts. I disagree with him on some, but that is his interpretation and since I didn’t provide the back up I can understand forgoing the right to complain on that front. … Again, pardon the bluntness. I have not found Mr. Kessler to be objective to work with so I made a conscious decision to stop working with him.”
(The person who sent the email did not respond to requests for an interview for this report. Kessler asked that the person not be identified since the email was sent privately and was not intended for publication.)
Kessler reviewed several more advertisements produced by the same super PAC, each time noting that its staff had not responded to requests for more information. In one case, though, he updated a fact check with a statement the group’s spokesman made to a different news organization.
Other fact-checkers could think of only a few organizations or politicians that had cut off communication. And spokespeople who worked for them declined to comment or did not respond to requests to discuss their thinking. “Thanks for reaching out,” wrote a former press secretary for a member of Congress who had a particularly fraught relationship with media fact-checkers. “I’d rather not share.”
PolitiFact national editor Holan recalled how that particular member of Congress “would never return a call… just ignored us.” But she added that political figures rarely take this tack with fact-checkers because it’s usually not in their interest.
Kara Carscaden, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign press secretary, suggested one reason the silent treatment might not be the best way to deal with fact-checkers: In the age of Google, fact checks have an especially long shelf life. “They become a quick point of reference for people,” Carscaden said. “You really want it to have your perspective in there.”
- Republican Party of Virginia, “To the Commonwealth of Virginia: A Comprehensive Analysis of PolitiFact Virginia’s Questionable Objectivity,” July 10, 2012 ↩
- Press Office, “Virginia Bar Association Debate and Politifact,” George Allen for U.S. Senate blog, July 24, 2012. Oct. 1, 2012, version preserved and recovered via Internet Archive ↩
- Examples: Sean Gorman “George Allen says Tim Kaine tried to raise taxes on people ‘earning as little as $17,000,'” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 3, 2012; Nancy Madsen, “George Allen says U.S. was on path to balanced budget when he left the Senate,” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 7, 2012; Sean Gorman, “George Allen says the state government workforce grew when Tim Kaine was governor,” PolitiFact Virginia, Aug. 27, 2012 ↩