Truth Police

As the race for the White House heats up, Brooks Jackson and untwist political tongues.

Let the voter beware. Primary season is here, bringing with it the exaggerations, half-baked statistics, and bald-faced whoppers that tend to flow from the mouths of presidential hopefuls. The live debates, especially, are epistemological free-for-alls. Claims, assertions, and figures babble forth too rapidly for viewers to go back and check them. Not too rapidly, however, for Brooks Jackson.Since 2003, Jackson, a veteran investigative journalist and self-described "consumer advocate" for the spiel-stunned voter, has logged the candidates' statements, weighed them against their sources-and their sources' sources-and posted the results at Funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the site has no advertising and no backing from any political party. Brooks, 66, has been scrutinizing politicians since 1970, when he moved to Washington to cover the Nixon administration for the Associated Press. He says misleading political speech is as old as Athens. "My theory is that candidates running for office have been fudging facts to attract voters for the past 2,500 years. We're probably not going to change that behavior."To wit: Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson have both inflated the spending increases implemented during Mike Huckabee's term as Arkansas governor; Hillary Clinton has understated the Bush administration's spending on health care; Barack Obama has overstated the growth of the national debt; and Rudy Giuliani has had an especially troubled relationship with the facts, exaggerating his mayoral record on crime and the economy, and grossly overstating the superiority of U.S. medical care for prostate cancer. Often, rather than taking 15 minutes to verify this hogwash, the mainstream media allows the candidates' quotes to slide by as if they were incontrovertible.
Candidates have been fudging facts to attract voters for 2,500 years.
After the candidates speak, goes to work digging up the raw, unbiased material that fuels op-eds and settles kitchen-table arguments. Working in Washington, D.C., with a team of six reporters, Brooks says that the venture is an "old school, top-down news organization," a throwback to the time when interpreting the day's events was a slow, deliberate process. "I feel like a dinosaur watching the mammals eat my lunch some days," he says. "We're not a blog. We're not a wiki. We post one or two articles a week. For us, the internet is a tool for free dissemination and a way to link to source material." Dinosaur jokes notwithstanding, in early 2008 will launch "Just the Facts!" a weekly three-minute video of the latest corrections.The site draws 20,000 to 30,000 visitors each day, a number that Jackson expects to rise as the general election draws closer. Calling his work a "seasonal business," he recalled's star turn during the 2004 vice-presidential debate. After the site posted documents refuting the notion that Dick Cheney was personally profiting from the Iraq War, Cheney told the debate's nationwide audience to visit (which led to a George Soros anti-Bush site, but close enough). Even with the gaffe, 400,000 people visited, and the site's traffic stayed at 200,000 or more users per day for the rest of the campaign.When talking about the current crop of hopefuls, avoids using words like "truth" or "lie." Its pronouncements are limited to labeling individual claims as questionable or inaccurate. It does not rank the integrity of individual candidates, though judging from the site's archive, Giuliani leads the field in falsities, with Bill Richardson a distant second. "A lot of the misinformation out there has nothing to do with whether the candidates are honest or not," Jackson says, arguing that sloppy campaign research deserves much of the blame. "In many cases, they can utter absolute bullshit and believe it totally."

Among the many inaccuracies from the final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses, found that "Rudy Giuliani said a big federal tax cut would produce 'a major boost in revenues for the government,' a notion that nearly all economists say is a fantasy."

The web, long driven by partisan invective, seems to be developing a taste for unbiased truth. In August, the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly launched, which rates candidates' statements on a scale from "True" to "Pants on fire!" The Washington Post soon joined in with "The Fact Checker," where fibs rate one to four "Pinocchios." With more and more sites continuously monitoring candidate credibility, there may never have been this much pressure on candidates to talk straight.LEARN MORE