Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Truth Be Told

Politicians Lie

Politicians lie. Shocking! In the year of the “You Lie” interruption of President Obama’s State of the Union address, it’s time to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and truth-tellers from the liars.

“In the past, we simply passed along the falsehoods and assumed citizens would sort out,” Bill Adair, national PolitiFact editor and Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times tells the Austin American-Statesman. Adair says voters nowadays in our complex world don’t have the time or means to parse out the truth. Adair and his newspaper won the Pulitzer last spring for “separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters” during the presidential election.

Now, Texas politicians will be under the same sort of microscope spearheaded by the Austin American-Statesman.

The “Truth-O-Meter” analyzed statements by Governor Rick Perry and Texas senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in a page-one article in the Austin American-Statesman January 13. The above-the-fold story consuming close to 100 column-inches, including the “jump page” announces an alliance with Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers PolitiFact started by the St. Petersburg Times ( in 2007.

“Holding candidates and public officials accountable for their pronouncements is one of the most serious obligations a news organization assumes in return for the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment,” said Statesman Editor Fred Zipp.

PolitiFact Texas ( is led by veteran Statesman political writer W. Gardner Selby. Reporters will focus on the 2010 elections. The race for Governor at the top of the ticket will grab most of the attention. The candidates’ “fact-based statements, not their opinions, will be put to the Truth-O-Meter’s tests. After digging down to the bottom, and deciding the facts, the statements will be assigned one of six labels:

True: The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Mostly True: The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Half True: The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Barely True: The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

False: The statement is not accurate.

Pants on Fire: The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. [Essentially, a lie.]

The PoltitiFact Texas findings will be published in the paper and online. The online page includes one “Pants On Fire” rating. (I love the flaming graphic.) Another useful feature is that the data base is searchable.

Under the leadership of then news director Carole Kneeland, KVUE TV (ABC) introduced “Truth Tests” in 1990 to pick apart political ads and analyze candidate’s claims with much the same goal. Other local stations have also done these types of stories. While these TV stories usually pop up during the political season, there has not been an ongoing, organized effort such as PolitiFact Texas.

PolitiFact editor Adair wants to hold all those who would seek election accountable, including those running in local races. Zipp says, yes, local races are part of the American-Statesman’s plan too. “We will focus on statewide campaigns and issues until after the March primaries (and April runoffs, if any occur). Then, we will reassess priorities.”

News media are constantly hammered for one thing or another, usually by those claiming bias. In this case it’s appropriate to make note when media does something right. They will, no doubt, be hammered for it though.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

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