As 'Truth-O-Meter' Spreads, Politicians Wince PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project created to fact-check politicians' claims, is teaming up with news outlets around the country to expand its reach. In Texas, where a contentious governor's race is under way, politicians are chafing at the ratings they're getting on the project's "Truth-O-Meter."
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As 'Truth-O-Meter' Spreads, Politicians Wince

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As 'Truth-O-Meter' Spreads, Politicians Wince

As 'Truth-O-Meter' Spreads, Politicians Wince

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If you're a regular listener of this program, you're probably familiar with Bill Adair. He's the man behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact project of the Saint Petersburg Times. He created the Truth-O-Meter a few years ago to grade the claims of politicians of all stripes.

In this campaign season, you'll be hearing more from him on NPR and also at

Well, now, Adair is training journalists at news outlets in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas to do some local fact-checking.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik went to Texas to see how it's working.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The Austin American-Statesman was the first newspaper partner to adopt the PolitiFact brand locally.

Mr. GARDNER SELBY (Reporter and Editor, PolitiFact Texas): At the start, had some vigorous conversations about why we've concluded what we did and why they thought we were off our rockers. I have a press release that was issued by Governor Perry's campaign. The headline is "Truth-O-Meter is Broken." I think that was issued in the first week we were in business.

FOLKENFLIK: The newspaper's Gardner Selby is now a writer and editor for its PolitiFact Texas desk. It represents a big change in the way mainstream reporters report and present their findings - with no slapdash he said, she said involved. Instead, carefully researched pieces heap praise or criticism on candidates for the truth of what they say on the trail.

Mr. SELBY: If someone asserts something, it's not going to just slip by as a soundbite. The Austin American-Statesman and PolitiFact Texas are going to take that soundbite and take it apart and put it back together again and say here are the pieces that fit, and here are the pieces that don't.

FOLKENFLIK: Readers around town told me they look forward to the PolitiFact stories.

Michael McCathern is a land surveyor.

Mr. MICHAEL McCATHERN (Land Surveyor): They rate, you know, whether they're pants on fire or whether they're telling the truth.

FOLKENFLIK: What do you think of that?

Mr. McCATHERN: I think the politicians are not looking as deep into their facts as the newspaper is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: So let's say a guy shows up at a party.

Unidentified Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the lieutenant governor...

FOLKENFLIK: That booming welcome was for David Dewhurst at the Texas Republican Convention in early June. While talking about the perils of illegal immigration he said, quote, "Phoenix, Arizona, I'm told, is now the number two kidnapping capital in the world, right behind Mexico City." That got a big honking false on the paper's front page. Dewhurst was none too pleased.

Lieutenant Governor DAVID DEWHURST (Republican, Texas): This is regrettably a new low for the Austin American-Statesman and for this particular group. It shouldn't be in the newspaper. It should be on the editorial page. I mean, for heaven's sakes.

FOLKENFLIK: Dewhurst says he's more of a policy person than a politician.

Lt. Gov. DEWHURST: I like solving problems, and I know the devil is in the details. So I've never had anyone challenge, that I can remember, in the last seven years, the accuracy of what I say.

FOLKENFLIK: And he finds support from unlikely quarters.

Unidentified Man #2: We're at Joe's Bar in Austin, Texas.

Unidentified Man #3: And there's two things out here.

Unidentified Man #2: A lot of Democrats are (unintelligible).

FOLKENFLIK: Democratic consultant Harold Cook was sharing drinks with direct mail strategist Jeff Crosby.

Mr. JEFF CROSBY (Direct Mail Strategist): PolitiFact, hopefully, was going to be a mechanism to cut through all the crap that both of us put out on each side, and then we can have a fair fight. Hadn't been that way.

FOLKENFLIK: They say the project gets hung up on the details, missing larger truths. Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, suggested the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an act of God and was widely criticized for seeming to dismiss the company's liability.

But PolitiFact Texas infuriated Democrats by saying Perry was technically correct in how he later defined act of God.

And when the state Democratic chairman declared Perry was living like the French King Louis XIV in a state-leased mansion, the newspaper's Gardner Selby mischievously contradicted him.

Democrat Harold Cook.

Mr. HAROLD COOK (Democratic Consultant): He is pulling out of a statement some all-but-meaningless rhetorical flourish that isn't even central to the point, and he's fact-checking that. And that doesn't give voters a clear sense of whether politicians are telling the truth or not.

FOLKENFLIK: Selby says his tongue-in-cheek piece made a larger point: Politicians will be held to account for their rhetoric.

So let's return to David Dewhurst and the claim that Phoenix had the second most kidnappings in the world.

Ms. CIARA O'ROURKE (Reporter, PolitiFact Texas): It sounds outrageous, a provocative claim, and is it true?

FOLKENFLIK: When PolitiFact Texas reporter Ciara O'Rourke asked for Dewhurst's sources, she received links to a bunch of press reports. The earliest such statement was made by an ABC News investigative piece from early 2009. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and both Arizona senators have said the same thing. But no politician or media outlet cited hard facts proving it. The Phoenix police department told O'Rourke it doesn't know.

Ms. O'ROURKE: I called the FBI, the Department of State, Interpol, United Nations, Homeland Security - any agency that we thought could shed some insight into the statement, and nothing turned up. Nobody was tracking the statistic in a comparable way.

FOLKENFLIK: Firms that insure corporate executives abroad told O'Rourke they don't think Phoenix comes close to Baghdad or Latin American cities. And the American-Statesman editors decided it doesn't matter what ABC reported. Public officials are responsible for what they say.

Gardner Selby says other journalists have told him they're leery of making a call like that in print for fear people will think they've lost their journalistic objectivity.

Mr. SELBY: My point of view is quite the opposite. That our whole point is to open people's eyes to what's happening out there. If that involves saying that someone's told a half true statement or a false statement, so be it.

FOLKENFLIK: You can read their grades and the accompanying reports and judge for yourself at

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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