New sites fact check politicians, journalists

By , csmonitor.com

Well, you're in for it now.

For the next eleven months, no matter how much you may wish for relief, it will be virtually impossible to escape politics. Ad campaigns - and budgets - that make Madison Avenue green with joy. Candidates trying to get interviewed by anyone with a microphone (the only time they'll be this accessible). Local and national news coverage in every medium from network television to one-man weblogs.

And though this may come as a shock, some of the information disseminated during this period may not be entirely accurate. Purely accidental of course - politicians would never aim to mislead or deceive, and wouldn't want us to vote for them if they did (I hope you appreciate that I'm keeping a straight face as I type this) - but there is such a thing as healthy skepticism, and this week's websites will help you to separate fact from fiction during the campaigns of '04.

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Both of the sites being reviewed this week are new and specifically dedicated to truth in politics. (And Diogenes thought he had it rough.) The first operates under the name, FactCheck.org, and tops its home page with the mission statement of "Holding Politicians Accountable," and the Daniel Moynihan quote, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."

From those three bits of introductory information, we can already build a pretty clear picture of what the site is all about, but just to fill in the details, FactCheck (online since December) monitors the accuracy of political speeches, ads, interviews and any other method that one candidate, party, or special interest group might use in promoting a specific view - and then posts, shall we say, "clarifications," online.

In a recent example, "Gephardt Ad Quotes Dean Out of Context," FactCheck provides a summary of a misleading Gephardt campaign ad (as well as a video and transcript of the ad itself), and then exposes the claims to the cold hard light of reality. (In this case, a criticism Dean made about Medicare's administration was presented in the ad as a condemnation of the program itself.) Other pieces examine the claim that Wesley Clark is a late convert from the Republican Party, and the Republican National Chairman's assertion that "80 percent of the tax relief for upper-income filers goes to small businesses."

In all cases, articles are accompanied by available video and transcripts, relevant facts and interview excerpts, and so readers can confirm for themselves that the quotes supplied aren't being used out of context, links to sources and supporting documents. Naturally, the number of articles is fairly small this early in the election year, but there is likely to be no shortage of material as the various campaigns proceed.

As for any suspicions of partisanship, FactCheck is a creation of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania - an entity which does not accept donations from "business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals." But don't be surprised if, while the Democrats are still fighting it out to find a new leader, there are more pieces about Democratic statements than Republican.

So we have FactCheck watching the politicians, but who's watching the watchers? After all, "embedded reporters" are old hat in political campaigns, and following a year in which large numbers of the American population were turning to the British Broadcasting Corporation to get the facts about the Iraq war, and Clear Channel was actually organizing and paying for pro-war rallies, one might be forced to entertain the possibility that even established news organizations can be vulnerable to bias and simple sloppy journalism. And in recognition of the fact that "All the news that's fit to print" is occasionally, well...junk, the Columbia Journalism Review has launched the Campaign Desk.

The Campaign Desk is a searchable weblog which will be active throughout the pre-presidential and presidential election campaigns, with the objective of examining political press coverage as it happens rather than in the traditional form of a post-election post-mortem. (In doing so, CJR hopes to have a beneficial impact on coverage during the campaign, when such an impact might actually be useful). Unlike FactCheck, the Campaign Desk doesn't provide every story with it's own mini-site complete with videos, sources and related links, but rather offers simple text critiques and reviews of press coverage (usually with direct links to that coverage).

Examples range from general topics, such as whether the press has a vested interest in a close Democratic leadership race, to an analysis of an ABC World News Tonight piece about Howard Dean and what he did - or didn't - know about domestic abuse allegations against an employee. There is also an interesting case study in how easily a badly reported story can spread - as elements of a Drudge Report article (which placed excerpts of testimony which were 11,500 words apart, in a single set of quotation marks) found their way into a Lieberman press release, and Reuters and AP news coverage. Fortunately, it's not all bad news at the Campaign Desk, and Tip of the Hat is especially dedicated to spotlighting news sources that "get-it-right."

As with FactCheck, Campaign Desk is very new on the scene and a work in progress, but listings in the site's index give a good indication of future developments. These include the categorizing of reports by medium (from network TV to the internet), issue (economy, Iraq, healthcare, etc.) and candidate. In the design arena, Campaign Desk has both an appealing overall look and some nice touches - such as a "Printer Friendly" option, and links to useful offsite resources including campaign schedules and candidate home pages.

With luck, both these sites will contribute to CJR's hope of improving political coverage in the next eleven months. They should certainly be regular destinations for journalists covering political issues, and for the rest of us, they can at least add an element of accuracy to the inescapable.

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