Just the facts about ... fact-checking

Fact-checkers have been given quite a workout this election season.
CBS News

(CBS News) The claims and counterclaims the candidates rattle off provide endless TALKING POINTS to the pundits . . . and plenty of work for eager fact-checkers. Rita Braver has been out searching for Just The Facts:

"That's not true!"
"That's not true!"
"You've got your facts wrong!"
"I never said that."

The candidates may constantly challenge each others' claims, but as each debate rages on, legions of truth-seekers are dissecting their every utterance.

Like those from FactCheck.org, at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

"They say so much," said Braver. "How in the world do you keep up with it?"

"Triage!" laughed former investigative reporter Brooks Jackson, who has been director since the project started in 2003.

"It's basically journalism," he said. "We go to the most authoritative sources of facts that we can find. If it's a claim about jobs, we'll go where the economists go - the Bureau of Labor Statistics - and download the data ourselves and check it out."

Case in point from this past Presidential Debate:

Romney: "In the last four years women have lost 580,000 jobs."

FactCheck.org found "the figure is closer to 93,000."

Of course, President Obama came in for criticism, too, referring to an Arizona law that allows police to stop anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

Obama: "He called the Arizona immigration law a model for the nation."

But FactCheck found that Romney was referring to an earlier, less stringent law "requiring EMPLOYERS to check the immigration status of EMPLOYEES."

Throughout the campaign, Jackson says there have been complaints and pushback from both camps.

"We got a six-page letter from the Obama campaign, complaining about a ruling we had done," Brooks said. "We do get it from both sides. And I think that shows we irritate Republicans sometimes and we irritate Democrats sometimes."

Of course, FactCheck is not the only lie detector out there.

The Tampa Bay Times has its Pulitzer Prize winning "Truth-O-Meter," with the popular "Pants on Fire" for the worst falsehoods. You can even get it as a phone app!

And most networks, including CBS News, have fact-check operations.

But candidates have used fact-checks to try to game the system.

After the first debate, the Obama campaign quickly put out an ad with NBC's Andrea Mitchell disputing Romney's claims about his economic plan:

Mitchell: "The non-partisan tax policy center concluded that Mitt Romney's tax plan would cost $4.8 trillion over ten years."

NBC quickly objected, saying Mitchell's report was also critical of Obama's claims.

David Corn, Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones Magazine, recently wrote a column questioning whether fact-checkers have become "merely participants in the ever-roiling political tussle."

"They find it useful to use them as ammo, but not useful to abide by them," said Corn.

But David Corn worries that, in general, many mainstream fact-checkers are too concerned about finding an equal amount of falsehoods by each candidate.

"If people think that everyone's going to be treated as equal opportunity liars, fibbers, prevaricators, whatever you want to call them, then the person who does it more doesn't pay a price for doing it more," Corn said.

But Glenn Kessler, "The Fact-checker" for the Washington Post - famed for giving out Pinocchio Noses for falsities - says it's NOT about finding balance.

"I don't pay attention to how many Democrats I've rated or how many Republicans I've rated," Kessler told Braver.

Kessler says, there are plenty of Pinocchios for both sides - especially when it comes to campaign ads.

One from the Obama camp describes Governor Romney's time at Bain Capital. "It describes him as a corporate raider," said Kessler. "Bain Capital, whatever you can say about it, they were not corporate raiders."

And then there's an ad from a group opposed to the president's reelection that earned four Pinocchios.

"The Obama administration admitted the truth that $2.3 billion of tax credits went overseas while millions of Americans can't find a job.

Is that true?

"No, no, virtually nothing in this ad is correct," said Kessler.

But no matter what the fact-checkers say, candidates often continue to make false claims.

Governor Romney in Tuesday's debate:

"A recent study has shown that people in the middle class will see $4,000 a year in higher taxes as a result of the spending and borrowing of this administration."

But Glen Kessler previously gave that statement 3 Pinocchios.

And an Obama camp ad claiming that Romney's former company invested in a Chinese manufacturer that took American jobs ("Newly-published documents show Mitt Romney's firms were pioneers at helping companies outsource their manufacturing") got a mostly-false Truth-o-Meter rating from Politifacts . . . but the ad stayed on the air.

"When it's in their political interest to stretch the facts, they're going to do it anyways. Because they know it moves voters," said Kessler.

It's a safe bet that as long as there are politicians, there will be job security for fact-checkers.

As David Corn sees it, the temptation to bend the truth is just too strong:

"Lies are great shortcuts, they give you emphasis," Corn said. "And they're cheap and easy.

"And unfortunately, sometimes they work."