Website holds politicians accountable

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Words such as dishonesty, scandal and confusion are commonplace in today’s political sphere. These doubts, however, may be put to rest with PolitiFact.com, the 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winning website that aims to help the public find truth in politics.

PolitiFact was created in 2007 by Bill Adair, Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times in Tampa, Fla. The project enlists reporters and researchers to examine statements made by politicians, lobbyists and others involved in government affairs. After extensive research, claims are rated for accuracy.

Adair proposed PolitiFact because he felt not enough fact-checking took place in past campaigns.

“The key moment for me was a speech in 2004 at the Republican Convention when (former U.S. Sen.) Zell Miller said a bunch of things that I know were wrong but didn’t fact-check,” Adair said. “So I vowed that we would do a better job of refereeing the truth in the 2008 campaign.”

To keep politicians in check, PolitiFact devised three rating systems: the Truth-O-Meter, Obameter and Flip-O-Meter.

The Truth-O-Meter — or “Heart of PolitiFact,” as coined by the website — rates candidates’ claims and attacks. Six rulings, from absolutely “True” all the way down to “Pants on Fire” for the most ridiculously false claims, are awarded to the candidates’ statements.

According to Adair, researchers evaluate each claim by obtaining the original statement of the politician, dividing it into individual claims and verifying the claims via the original source. The entire process takes about a day, he said.

Currently on the Wisconsin Truth-O-Meter are statements made by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Republican candidate Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

Barrett earned a rating of “Barely True” for the statement, “Walker says he’s for lower taxes. But Milwaukee County spending has gone up by $349 million.”

Walker earned a rating of “False” for his negative attack ad calling former gubernatorial GOP opponent Mark Neumann the equivalent of Nancy Pelosi. Walker defeated Neumann in the gubernatorial primaries Tuesday.

Jim Nelson, deputy business editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a reporter for PolitiFact Wisconsin, said whoever wins the governor’s race should expect their own rating meter.

“Hopefully, the new governor will be comfortable with pretty aggressive coverage,” Nelson said. “We’ll be watching him pretty closely. …He’ll have a meter all to himself.”

Similar to a meter for the new governor, the Obameter provides an assessment of President Barack Obama’s promises made while in office. PolitiFact defines a promise as “a prospective statement of an action or outcome that is verifiable,” according to the website.

A compilation of more than 500 promises are rated as “No Action,” “Stalled” or “In the Works.” “No Action” means no formal proposal has been made since the initial claim, “Stalled” means the proposal has been temporarily stopped, and “In the Works” means the proposal is being considered.

Researchers then determine whether his statements earn a ruling of “Promise Kept,” “Compromise” or “Promise Broken.” Although a promise might be labeled “broken,” it is not necessarily because of Obama, but could be due to unfavorable voting in Congress.

Currently, the Obameter shows 121 promises kept, 39 compromised, 22 broken, 81 stalled, 240 in the works and three not yet rated. Promises kept include requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, while promises broken include doubling the funding for after-school programs.

The Flip-O-Meter rates public officials on their voting patterns and positions. Candidates earn ratings of “No Flip,” “Half Flip” or “Full Flop” based on whether or not their campaign positions are consistent.

Nelson said there have been plenty of tough ratings, but no mistakes have been made to date.

“We haven’t had anyone calling in saying we really screwed up,” Nelson said. “There’s no saying it won’t happen, but it hasn’t yet.”

Six state newspapers, including ones in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, have partnerships with the operation. The Journal Sentinel formed a partnership with PolitiFact last month.

Greg Borowski, senior editor for projects and investigations at the Journal Sentinel, is also editor for the new partnership. Borowski said he and the Journal Sentinel editors were shocked by how quickly this year’s campaigns, particularly the governor’s race, turned negative.

“During this election year, the campaigns were nasty from the beginning,” Borowski said. “It seems to be getting harder for readers to sort out what is being said.”

Borowski also said PolitiFact fits well with journalists’ watchdog obligations.

“It’s important to hold candidates, campaigns, political parties and outside groups accountable for what they say,” Borowski said.

According to Adair, the project has gotten a hugely positive reaction from the public.

“All in all, I think we’re providing a valuable and overdue service,” Adair said. “This is what political journalists should have done years ago.”

Borowski said PolitiFact Wisconsin is sure to remain successful even after the November elections are over.

“Elections come and go, but politics goes on all the time,” Borowski said. “We’ll shift our attention to what elected officials are saying, holding the new governor accountable for promises.”

Graphic:

Scott Walker says “Mark Neumann = Nancy Pelosi.”    FALSE

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