Political Fact-Checking Under Fire

Read Mark Hemingway's article in The Weekly Standard and Glenn Kessler's response in The Washington Post.

Sites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org are designed to verify political claims and hold politicians accountable. But critics say fact-checking entities are themselves biased. The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post discuss fact-checking in American politics.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past few years, several news organizations established fact-checkers as impartial arbiters to gauge the accuracy of politicians. The best known is probably PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize for what was then the St. Petersburg Times.

That column uses a truth-o-meter and labels the biggest howlers with a Pants on Fire. A year ago, the Washington Post inaugurated the Fact Checker, which issues one to four Pinocchios.

Now, some critics question the accuracy and purpose of the fact-checkers themselves for alleged bias or for trying to apply absolute terms like true or false to debatable claims.

If you read these fact-checker columns, do you find them useful? Is so, how so? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Robert Redford joins us on the upcoming Sundance Festival and how documentaries changed change. But first: fact-checkers. Among the critics, Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard who joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you.

MARK HEMINGWAY: Hey, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Also with us here in the studio, longtime political reporter Glenn Kessler, who now writes the Fact Checker in the Washington Post, and thanks very much for coming in.

GLENN KESSLER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Mark Hemingway, in a piece titled "Lies, Damned Lies and Fact Checking," you concluded that the fact-checker is less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest. How did you arrive at that?

HEMINGWAY: Well, there's a number of reasons why I arrived at that conclusion. One of the facts I pointed out in the piece was that the University of Minnesota School of Public Affairs had actually done a survey of PolitiFact, and they evaluated all 500 statements that PolitiFact had rated from January of 2010 to January of 2011.

And they found that of the 98 statements that PolitiFact had rated false, 74 of them were by Republicans. Now, I can think of a number of reasons why you might cite one party over the other more, in terms of, you know, who was telling the truth and who wasn't. But doing that at a rate of three to one strikes me as awfully suspicious, particularly when, if you delve into the specifics of the statements that they cited, there's all kinds of problematic things contained there, whereas they are, you know, like you're mentioned, they're often fact-checking opinions and providing counter-arguments to, you know, stated opinions.

CONAN: All right, let's bring Glenn Kessler into the conversation. You did an annual review after your first year as a column, and it turned out - you can't speak for PolitiFact, I don't think, but Fact Checker for the Washington Post, I think the number of comments were just about even.

KESSLER: That's right. We - while I do this, I don't really focus on whether they're Republican or Democrat or what have you. I simply look at the statements. But at the end of the year, I did add it all up, and it was about - exactly half were Republican that - statements I vetted, half were Democratic statements.

CONAN: And the number of Pinocchios per party was just about the same, too.

KESSLER: It was just about the same, as well. I mean, in fact there was a slight higher average Pinocchio for Republicans, which I attributed to the fact that there is a Republican presidential primary going on these days, and there were a few Republican candidates that had very high Pinocchio ratings.

CONAN: There have been others, including Mark Hemingway, but other stories about fact checkers in the past few weeks that have come to the conclusion that, well, among other things, it's hard to find absolute assertions of facts by politicians, at least enough to fill up the column and that inevitably you're going to wind up checking assertions and opinions and debatable points.

KESSLER: Well, frankly, I try not to do that. I mean, there may be instances where people will say I failed in that endeavor. There's nothing more gratifying than being confronted with a number that some politician says, like Mitt Romney, I created 100,000 jobs, and then trying to break...

CONAN: Or Barack Obama, to be fair, there's the largest middle-class tax cut in history.

KESSLER: Right, which is another debatable fact. And so in being able to break that down and demonstrate whether that is true or not true. Now, you know, I have this gradation where you get one to four Pinocchios, and you have - or you can get the prized Geppetto checkmark, and, you know, that's a reflection of the fact that there's a gradation there.

You know, there are facts that are vaguely true but are taken out of context, or there are facts that are not very illustrative of the point you're trying to make. And so - and I actually don't make a decision as to whether or not someone is purposely lying. I mean, PolitiFact has its lie of the year. I never really speak about lies or not. I don't try to get to the motivations of people but simply say whether or not what they said was a misstatement.

CONAN: Mark Hemingway, checking matters of fact would seem to be a useful exercise.

HEMINGWAY: Absolutely, and I don't think anybody's against checking the actual fact. It's just that it comes down to, you know, like what you mentioned before, where you have situations where, you know, you have debates that are far too nuanced to say this is, you know, correct or this is incorrect.

And it just becomes this thing where, you know, one person's presenting an opinion, but because you have this pseudo-scientific marketing gimmick, where you're saying it's false, or you're assuming someone's intent or, you know, no disrespect to Glenn, you know, the Pinocchio itself does sort of imply lying and intent and other things like that.

But the reality is that people like to be told that this is right and this is wrong because it simplifies things for them, and it's a very attractive thing for the reader, and it makes these things very popular.

CONAN: Let's get some of our callers involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. If you read fact-checker columns, do you find them useful? Our guests again, Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard and Glenn Kessler, who created and writes the Fact Checker column for the Washington Post. And we'll start with Brian(ph), Brian with us from Boise.

BRIAN: Yeah, hi, how are you?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

BRIAN: Good. You know, I just wanted to say that I have always been a big reader of all the fact-checkers, and I really, really strongly support what they do when it comes to precise numbers. And my example of that is I believe it was John Cornyn who said that Planned Parenthood, 90 percent of what they did was abortions. And that was very measurably, you know, incorrect.

CONAN: John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas.

BRIAN: Exactly, yeah, and so that's an issue where that really stands out as a value to me. But when I started rethinking the fact-checking model was the PolitiFact Lie of the Year of 2011 about, you know, Republicans voting to end Medicare. And that was an issue where there was so much gray area, and it was so opinion-based that for them to call that the lie of the year as an absolute statement just absolutely shot their credibility with me.

CONAN: Glenn Kessler, I know you've written about this. It was not your lie of the year, as you say you don't use the word lie, for example, but it was among your biggest misstatements of the year.

KESSLER: That's right, that's right. And I think the case of the - you know, what the issue at hand was the Democrats saying that the Republicans were planning to kill Medicare, which they then illustrated with television ads that included literally tossing granny over the cliff.

CONAN: AARP ad there.

KESSLER: Well, I don't know if it was AARP, but it was one of those organizations. And, you know, when you get down to it, you can have an argument about whether or not what the House Republicans want to do with Medicare was a radical change or not, but it was not killing the program.

And, you know, there were different ways of financing it and different ways of delivering care, but particularly for people over the age of 55 currently, they wouldn't really see a change.

CONAN: Would it have been more accurate or accurate enough to say kill Medicare as we know it?

KESSLER: Well, again, the word kill is really - I think that was where it gets very problematic. And, you know, so you say end Medicare as we know it, well then again, you start introducing what I call weasel words. Those are, you know, it's simplified political rhetoric, and it's not very factual.

CONAN: And just a correction, it was Jon Kyl I think who said abortion services were over 90 percent, so forgive us for that. And turning to you, Mark Hemingway, is that a useful conversation to be having?

HEMINGWAY: Well, I think this PolitiFact Lie of the Year thing actually is a very useful conversation because it illustrates in a very good way where the fact-checking things can really muck up the debate.

Now, for instance I think the president's health care plans thus far have been catastrophically stupid, and I like a lot of what I see about the Ryan plan. That said, I think that PolitiFact was fairly egregious when they pronounced this the Lie of the Year.

Now the reality is that Medicare has $30 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Now, any plan that is going to address those problems is going to alter the problem significantly because Medicare as it is, is the problem.

So yes, I mean, yes, Paul Ryan is, you know, maybe killing is too strong and unhelpful, but it's also not helpful to say that he's not changing the fundamental nature of the program either.

KESSLER: Well, and I agree completely with that, and in fact I also rated very poorly some of the ways that Republicans would attack Democrats over Medicare. I mean, the fact of the matter is, as you say, Medicare on its current course is not sustainable. So whatever you're going to do, you're going to have to make changes.

And so to sit there in a vacuum and say, well, this plan is going to kill Medicare or kill it as we know it when frankly no matter what we do, Medicare will have to change, and so that I think is part of thinking as why it was called Lie of the Year.

HEMINGWAY: I would also point out that just two years ago, PolitiFact's Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin referring to death panels, which refers to something, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is the part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that deals with Medicare. And they declared that the Lie of the Year.

And, you know, personally I think it was obvious that Sarah Palin was indulging in a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, and, you know, I don't recall a lot of people, you know, complaining that, you know, PolitiFact was, you know, fact-checking what was, you know, an obvious bit of rhetoric back then.

So, you know, I think it just - it goes both ways, and it's just an example of how these fact-checking organizations can wade into a debate and muck up something that involves a lot of subtle and complex details. I mean, if I want to go into, you know, how the Independent Payment Advisory Board works, you know, we're going to be here all day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HEMINGWAY: And you decide whether that's positive or not, but...

CONAN: Somebody else's show, if you will.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Here's an email from Madonna - and thanks very much for the call, Brian. Madonna in St. Louis: How can a regular person tell if a fact-checking organization is partisan? They don't publish their financial statements, so we can't see where the money is coming from. Glenn Kessler, you work for the Washington Post.

KESSLER: That's right.

CONAN: And PolitiFact, as far as I know, is a creature, to use a pejorative word, of what used to be the St. Pete's Times, now the Tampa Times.

KESSLER: That's right.

CONAN: And I think that's true of most of these organizations.

KESSLER: Right, I mean, you do have organizations on the left and the right, since there's Media Matters, which kind of fact-checks things from the left.

CONAN: But other people do it from the right, as well.

KESSLER: Exactly.

CONAN: And so in that case, they're openly partisan, but we're talking about the people who describe themselves as nonpartisan fact-checkers. If you read them, do you find their criticisms and comments and useful? How many Pinocchios does it take? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The campaign season keeps fact-checkers busy, poring over political ads, digging into the soundbites from countless debates and combing through official biographies for inaccuracy and the truth stretched.

All the while, they've got to keep their eyes on the ball, the sitting president who should not get a pass just because his re-nomination is virtually locked up. Critics argue that fact-checkers hide behind a mantle of impartiality while handing out judgments that are anything but impartial.

If you read the fact-checker columns like those in the Washington Post or on PolitiFact, do you find them useful? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Glenn Kessler is with us, he writes the Fact Checker for the Washington Post. Also Mark Hemingway is here in Studio 3A. He took the trade to task in a piece he wrote for the Weekly Standard. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Jim(ph), and Jim's calling from Fort Collins in Colorado.

JIM: Yes, hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: Prior to the break, I kind of felt like we were getting into too much of an issue with regard to one agency trying to justify their position with regard to what is or is not a fact. And some of that's OK, but I think the bigger picture in my perspective is that given the very partisan rhetoric that we hear today, especially at this particular time of the year, along with the hyperbole from each side, that these fact-checking organizations are at least a place to go to get some kind of a reference point from which further information can be garnered in order to make a more informed decision.

They perform a very good service, in my opinion.

CONAN: Not to get into the weeds, but might you point to an example, Tim?

JIM: Might I point to an example? Well, yeah, I guess some of this health care stuff is important, too. I don't remember an exact example, but the doing away with Medicare and changing Medicare so significantly, for example the Medicare Advantage program.

People that I have talked to say oh, well, they're trying to change Medicare so completely that we get rid of some of our - the benefits that we pay for. And if you look into that more deeply, Medicare Advantage might change but it's certainly not going to go away. And at least that's something that people don't think about too deeply, perhaps.

CONAN: All right, Jim, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JIM: All right.

CONAN: One of the criticisms, Mark Hemingway, that's been raised is that in fact fact-checkers undermine their own organizations, and elsewhere in the newspaper, aren't those reporters supposed to be checking facts, too?

HEMINGWAY: Yeah, and I think this is a big problem here is what we have is the major media outlets have so given themselves over to analysis and other things like that that what happens is that now...

CONAN: As a result of the changing news business.

HEMINGWAY: Yes, as a result of the changing news business, a lot of factors, have so given themselves over to analysis that people read newspapers anymore, and they're like, well, where's the basic information that I want? So then when we get into these complex matters or disputes, along come the fact-checkers to answer these questions because it wasn't resolved in the initial, you know, reporting.

So they turn to the fact-checkers, and then the fact-checkers are then providing analysis but then pretending it's the impartial sorting out of what's going on. And so you're creating this feedback loop of just analysis on top of analysis, and people, you know, aren't really getting through the din.

Now that said, I think that, you know, fact-checking is - can be done right. You know, Glenn is a very able political reporter, I've been reading him for years, and the best fact-checking is, you know, something that is, you know, just straight-up good reporting that with this pseudo-scientific marketing gimmick tacked on. And so it can be done right. It's just, it's frequently done very poorly.

CONAN: And, you know, Glenn, you wrote a piece that said wait a minute, we're not supposed to be replacing journalism, we're complimentary.

KESSLER: That's right, I view it as a supplement, and in fact when I was a political reporter, I was often frustrated that I would be covering the day-to-day statements of the candidates and never really had an opportunity to step back and really examine what the truth was behind that statement.

And what I try to do with these columns is not only focus on a particular statement but also give resources for readers to go do their own research. I provide links to all my documentation, to all the reports that I've looked at to reach my conclusions, and so I view it as in part, you know, an education process for everyone involved.

CONAN: Let's go next to Matt(ph), Matt with us from Pueblo, Colorado.

MATT: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MATT: Thanks for taking my call. Well, I am a liberal, green Democrat, whatever, who's kind of coming around to Ron Paul's position on some things. And I don't know if it was Mr. Kessler or one of the other so-called fact-checkers wrote something kind of quibbling with his statement that America was bankrupt and gave it a mostly false or three Pinocchios or whatever.

And I just - and I found it totally unhelpful. It's kind of what you were talking about. You're just quibbling about definitions. I think anybody who is following the economic situation would say that we're in dire trouble, and so to say that - you know, and also Ron Paul's been very clear what he means by bankrupt.

So if you wanted to talk about that, you could look into exactly what he means. He's been talking about it for 30 years. But rather than deal with that, it's just this, sort of, well, bankrupt means, you know, you're in receivership and we're not, so three Pinocchios.

CONAN: I don't know if that was you, Glenn.

KESSLER: I plead guilty.

CONAN: And bankrupt, I think the argument, if you use the term bankrupt, you should say what you mean.

KESSLER: Exactly. I mean, that's a very strong term. And the fact of the matter is, you know, U.S. Treasury bonds are the gold standard around the world, and you can say the United States is in economic distress or is headed towards bankruptcy or something like that, but to make a flat declaration that the United States is bankrupt I think is incorrect.

Now, I happen to think that Mark disagrees on this point. I think he criticized that particular column, which, you know, I'm - I get thousands of letters every day from readers loving or hating what I write, and I actually learn a lot from some of those readers who make very thoughtful responses to what I've written, and it informs my thinking.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about your process, if you would - and Matt, thanks very much for the call. Do you get assigned a quote or an attribution from an editor? Do you look at debates yourself and say oh, better check into that? Or do you get tips from readers?

KESSLER: No, I don't get assigned anything from an editor. It's all on my own initiative. I scan transcripts. I watch debates. I read speeches, listen to speeches whenever the president makes a speech. I get lots of tips from readers. Occasionally I will be pointed to something by - it's strange how it happens, but a Democrat might say, hey, look at what that Republican said, or a Republican might say God, can you believe what that Democrat said, and I will look into it.

HEMINGWAY: I was just going to say that I'm glad this person called on this specific example. Glenn and I were discussing this before we came into the studio because I had written a blog post talking about this specific piece. This is another example I think where fact-checking is just really not unhelpful.

I mean, does any American not know what Ron Paul means when he says America's bankrupt? I mean, the national debt has increased $4 trillion, about 40 percent in three years. We have, you know, things like $30 trillion unfunded Medicare liabilities. We have no money.

Yes, in the specific sense, there is no extra-national legal court that we can go to and file something, you know, Chapter 11 with the United Nations or something like that. But everyone knows we're out of money, and everyone knows what Ron Paul means, and to go in and sort of nitpick that just isn't helpful to the political dialogue, I think.

CONAN: Again, an exaggerated metaphor that is of use in the political discourse, a matter of opinion then.

HEMINGWAY: Well, yeah, but the other thing is I never say this because, you know, I'm inherently suspicious of politicians; I think all Americans should be. But you also have to give these guys a break. I mean, they're trying to communicate to a mass audience, you know, by talking confidently, which is why they make so many mistakes, which is why they give Glenn plenty of fodder on one hand.

But on the other hand, I mean, you know, cut them some slack. I mean, they're trying to push a message here, and every American knows what Ron Paul means when he says America's bankrupt.

KESSLER: Well, and I will say that I do try to make it - you asked about my process, I make a distinction between statements that are made in prepared speeches versus things that might be said off-the-cuff. I mean, I think if someone thought about it, and they decided to put a particular fact in a speech, I'm going to look at that a little more harshly than something that might have been off-the-cuff.

And a lot of times, I will simply say well, look, he obviously misspoke. It's not worth, you know, dinging him for that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Julie(ph), Julie with us from Bowling Green in Ohio.

JULIE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I have a question, and I wanted to follow it up by a brief comment, and then I'll take my response off the air. The - I think it's Mr. Hemingway quoted that PolitiFact and other fact-checkers are heavily skewed towards giving Republicans lies or, you know, lie of the year or whatever.

And I was wondering if that was just, like, official, or does that include pundits and commentators? Does it include everybody? And then I just wanted to also comment that I think political fact-checkers are very important because up in rural northwest Ohio, you know, most of the people that I'm around, you know, watch a lot of these commentators, and they take what they say as fact.

And when Michele Bachmann makes comments like, you know, vaccines are dangerous, you know, they don't care about anything but what just came out of Michele Bachmann's mouth, and I think that...

CONAN: Michele Bachmann was a candidate, is a member of Congress and is a candidate, therefore her statements are perfectly, imminently qualified for review by fact checkers, I think, by their own definition. But pundits, Glenn Kessler, would you review pundits?

KESSLER: You know, I don't do that. I'm just myself and an assistant. PolitiFact has a, you know, vast and growing army of fact checkers around the country because they've partnered with a number of different newspapers. They do take on pundits, you know, and maybe that's an area that's ripe for investigation. But at the moment...

CONAN: But they're busy elsewhere in the middle of the day.

KESSLER: Right, exactly.

CONAN: Here's an email from Noreen(ph). I don't understand that the - that since - excuse me. I don't understand the idea that since PolitiFact demonstrates that Republicans lie three times as often as Democrats mean it's biased. Maybe Republicans actually do lie that much more. The idea that you have to have an even number of lies reported for Democrats and Republicans in order to be considered not biased is ridiculous. One side could lie way more than the other. And by trying to make them even, you are distorting fact. Is simple numerical balance an indication of nonpartisanship?

KESSLER: No. I don't look at them that way, and, as I said, I don't really keep track of, you know, how many Democrats or how many Republicans I'm looking at until, you know, at the end of the year, I count it up. My own experience from 30 years covering Washington and international diplomacy and that sort of thing is there's - both Democrats and Republicans will twist the truth as they wish if it somehow will further their aims. I mean, no one is pure as a driven snow here. And I've often joked that if I ever write an autobiography, I'm going to title it "Waiting for People to Lie to Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's something reporters do a lot. Mark Hemingway?

HEMINGWAY: Why - I think I said when I even brought this up. I mean, you know, I don't think that, you know, that, you know, numerical selection is indicative of, you know, bias per se. I just think that it's highly suspicious. When it's three to one, you know, if it were 60-40, you know, whatever, yeah, sure, you know? But when it's three to one, you start getting things where, you know, you start wondering about, you know, why the selection bias.

And then, second of all, the other issue is it's not just that they're choosing, you know, saying Republicans are lying three times more than Democrats, it's the rationales they choose when they say that they're lying. And I've gone through this a number of times where, you know, I'm banging my head against the desk because I read some rationale for some statement they've rated false when it's just clearly unfair. So it's not just that they're selecting it three to one, it's just the rationales that they use when they select it are often really shaky.

CONAN: Mark Hemingway is the online editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote the piece "Lies, Damned Lies, and Fact Checkers." Glenn Kessler created and writes The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Jonathan is on the line. Jonathan with us from Lebanon, in New Hampshire.

JONATHAN: Hi. This sort of follows up on what your guests just said. Although I do usually read the PolitiFact column that runs in our local paper, the Valley News, I usually don't find it all that helpful because, you know, just like the guest said, I sort of expect that politicians, especially in a very, you know, rough race, will exaggerate greatly and throw in a few, you know, complete just untruths. You know, I'm not totally cynical about politics. I believe, you know, I think that the political system is still, you know, working more or less, but I'm cynical enough to not trust, you know, the things that the politicians are saying. And I, you know, I tend to rely on my other reading to have some sense of whether or not what they say is true or not to begin with. So that, for me, the fact checking is only moderately useful.

CONAN: It sounds like a sensible approach. Can you tell us, did you vote today?

JONATHAN: No. I actually - I'm calling from Lebanon, New Hampshire, but I live right across the border in Vermont.

CONAN: Oh, not eligible.

JONATHAN: Not eligible, exactly.

CONAN: Not this time around, anyway. Jonathan, thanks very much for the call. I was hoping we could get a preview...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...a sample poll, in any case. I wanted to get into why it is that - and you wrote about this, and it's been written about in the Columbia Journalism Review as well. Why it is you think that these fact checker columns have become - they're popular because people enjoy them, but why - an attempt to control the political discourse?

HEMINGWAY: I think that, you know, when you get into situations where the PolitiFact you have, you know, things three to one, in terms of citing one party over the other...

CONAN: Not just - I just have to say you were very critical of The Associated Press as well...

HEMINGWAY: (unintelligible) The Associated Press, I mean, the other fact (unintelligible)...

CONAN: And I have to say less critical of Glenn but...

HEMINGWAY: Well, part of the thing here is that it gets in this other issue where a lot of the fact checking is about narratives, like The AP has run fact checks on, for instance, people were comparing Obama's handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Katrina disaster in the Bush administration. So they run a fact check saying this is why this comparison makes no sense. Well, I mean, come on? I mean, it's a very broad comparison. They're both in the same general area. In both cases, the public, you know, perceived that the president responded to the crisis poorly. There's all kinds of very broad things. You can see where people would be connecting the two.

But it's not necessarily the news organization's job to come in and say, oh, well, you know, if people are talking about this, they shouldn't talk about it, you know? And that's kind of what happens, you know, and particularly because the media is so responsible this day and age for creating those narratives in the first place.

CONAN: And, Glenn Kessler, when you come in with terms like true or false, we're not going into lies, but degrees of truth, isn't - are those absolutes? Don't they stifle discussion?

KESSLER: Correct. And I don't mean - I guess, if I label something four Pinocchios, I'm saying it is...

CONAN: It's pretty false.

KESSLER: ...it's pretty false. But there are - and that's why I have to scale. I mean - and, you know, it's - maybe it is pseudoscientific or a marketing gimmick, but it does help me actually as a writer and an evaluator to keep straight in my own mind, you know, the severity of the misstatement. If it's really just a one Pinocchio thing, or if it's something that really ranks up to three Pinocchios, it forces me to kind of think about it in a very consistent, disciplined way.

CONAN: You've also mentioned it is inevitably arbitrary. You pick some things and not others. You can't get to everything.

KESSLER: I can't get to everything, and I obviously, you know, I would - actually, I would like to be able to give more Geppetto checkmarks out, but I find myself always being drawn to those statements that, you know, readers will say, well, what did this mean when they said that? And then I look into it and it's not correct.

CONAN: Glenn Kessler, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Glenn Kessler - oh - who's the creator and writer of The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. Mark Hemingway, appreciate your coming in. Mark Hemingway is the online editor of The Weekly Standard. Both of them joined us here in Studio 3A.

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