Fact checker: "As long as politicians open their mouths, I'll have a job"
You can expect presidential candidates to make a lot of claims during the CBS News Republican debate in South Carolina Saturday night, but some just might not be true. Reporters are supposed to make sure of their facts as a matter of course, but this campaign has seen a growing army of political fact checkers who are expected to explain how they checked what candidates say.
The winter of 2016 may well be remembered for a blizzard, but not of snow. Squalls of spin have socked voters across the land, reports CBS News' Mark Albert. It's been a flurry of promises and pledges, broadsides and bombast -- all delivered with the gusto of a nor'easter.
The gale-force one-liners can be nauseating as presidential candidates try to cajole and convince voters. So how do you know what's true and what's not?
Like a lighthouse in the storm, Glenn Kessler tries to cut through the fog of facts as the columnist for The Washington Post's Fact Checker. Business these days is better than ever, he said. Kessler and colleague Michelle Lee assign one to four Pinocchios, using the beloved children's character whose nose grew when he didn't tell the truth.
But Kessler doesn't type the L-word.
"I never use the word 'lie.' I can't get into a politician's head," Kessler said.
But he has chastised politicians with other words: "false," "dubious," "statistical mendacity," "debunk," "no evidence," "deeply flawed," "wildly inflated," "wildly mischaracterized," "bizarre claim," "inaccurate" and "misleading."
"Yes, I plead guilty to using those words," Kessler said, laughing.
Their thesaurus was well-worn in 2015.
No party was spared. Donald Trump earned the most Pinocchios. In fact, Kessler wrote, "Frankly, it's really not interesting to fact check the Donald, as his assertions are so easily debunked."
"I saw people getting together and, in fairly large numbers, celebrating as the World Trade Center was coming down," Trump said at a rally in November. Kessler went on to debunk that claim.
Also on the list of their biggest Pinocchios of 2015: President Obama.
"The Keystone is for Canadian oil, to send that down to the Gulf. It bypasses the the United States," Mr. Obama said in February 2015. Kessler in turn pointed out the "overinflated rhetoric" that surrounded the pipeline debate.
Politicians are paying attention.
"Senator, the fact checkers say you're wrong," Chris Wallace said to GOP candidate Ted Cruz on "Fox News Sunday" in January in response to Cruz's claim that Obamacare has been the biggest job killer in the U.S.
"Chris, the media fact checkers are not fair and impartial. They are liberal editorial journalists. And they have made it their mission to defend Obamacare," Cruz responded.
"There's certainly no question that more people have jobs and more people health insurance," Wallace pointed out.
"Yes, there is question," Cruz said.
Kessler said politicians or their staffs even try to negotiate a better rating. But some just blink.
"I actually got calls from Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said that they, because of my fact checks, they were going to be much more careful in the future," Kessler said.
If the number of claims has exploded, so too have the number of fact checkers.
At least 80 "active" fact checking sites now span the globe, according to the Duke Reporters' Lab, which in January helped launch an archive of U.S. political TV ads waiting to be vetted.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.com has its own rating system with "Pants on Fire!" and Politico has a "Wrongometer."
FactCheck.org doesn't have a rating system, but they call politicians out in a contextual way.
"We just tell readers this is misleading and this is why," FactCheck.org deputy managing editor Rob Farley said.
"We're advocating for truth in politics and for getting the voters the best information they can get," Farley added. "And so we want them to be armed when they go to the ballot box with the facts."
Based in Philadelphia, the nonpartisan, non-profit FactCheck.org has a team of six staffers, led by Eugene Kiely. On the day CBS News visited him, we found him fact checking a Ted Cruz TV ad, which he said was not true.
"So I'm just trying to piece together the information that I need to show here's what really happened," Kiely said.
The team posted its analysis the next day.
But even fact checkers are not all-knowing.
Just this week, Politifact revised a headline on a fact check after pushback from a presidential campaign, writing its original wording "should have been more precise."
Kiely at FactCheck.org said the sheer number of candidates -- and claims -- this cycle has been "overwhelming." He said 2016 will be more of the same.
"But it's good for us in terms of being able to provide information to the public," Kiely said.
That's why, just like a weather forecaster in winter, the Post's Kessler predicts fact checkers will never be out of season.
"I think as long as politicians open their mouths, I'll have a job," Kessler said.
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