Q and A: St. Petersburg Times’s Bill Adair

Behind the scenes of the Obameter

Just in time for the inauguration, the St. Petersburg Times expanded its Politifact operation to launch the Obameter, a running tally of the 510 promises made by Barack Obama on the campaign trail, and his progress toward keeping them. Each promise is labeled as “Kept,” “Broken,” “Stalled,” “In the Works,” “No Action,” or “Compromise.” Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact and the Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times, oversees the project, which has a staff of “one and a half editors and two and a half reporters.” CJR spoke with Adair about how the project has fared in its first month.

Katia Bachko: You’ve been up and running for a few weeks now. How’s it going?

Bill Adair: We launched on January 15 and never really did traffic projections because we just didn’t have an idea what sort of audience our Obameter would appeal to. Our previous record had been somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter million page views a day which we had ran after the Republican Convention for a couple of days, and we just blew the doors off that. Within a week of our launch, our traffic was 400,000-plus for a good week running. We didn’t think we would sustain that, but it’s been much more successful than I ever dreamed.

KB: Well, it’s such a catchy concept. Is that why do you think people are drawn to it?

BA: I think people like scorecards. People like to know how he’s doing, and we provide that on any given day. You don’t have to wait until the end of one hundred days to assess the Obama presidency. You can check back once a day if you want and find out. I think that we have found the most objective measurement possible.

It has appealed to both sides of the political spectrum. We hear from many Obama supporters who are trying to talk us out of our “broken” promises and compromises. Then, we hear from many conservatives who are trying to get us to move some of the items that are “In the Works” to “Promise Broken.” People care about these readings. It’s the right form of new journalism at the right time.

KB: So, how does it work?

BA: When we created the database of promises, we put dates with each item of when each item comes up for a check. If we look at something and it’s a long-term promise, then we put a date of December 31, 2009. If it’s something that involves a budgetary commitment, we put a date of February 1. His first proposed budget will be coming up very soon. On any given day, we can look in the database to make sure that we’ve done checks on all of the promises that have this date or older.

We look at the date in the database, and then go to the department that’s involved in the promise and say: Has there been progress? You’re catching us right at the beginning, so we don’t have much of a routine yet.

KB: Are you going to update it with promises he makes as president?

BA: We’re going to keep it to campaign promises because that’s a finite set. If you start getting into new promises, then it’s like moving the goalposts, and we decided that the idea of campaign promises is something that readers can understand and I think it would become very confusing if you kept changing it. This is part of the challenge of creating a new form of journalism. We’re not only creating a new form of Web journalism, but we’re creating a whole new process that goes beyond [the] traditional.

This is new and we’re writing the rule book as we go. It’s not like they taught us this in journalism school, so by necessity we are creating the guidelines as we go. I think we’ve done a very good job at that and we’ve been fair and even-handed. We’ve made a couple of calls that I think we’ve regretted and then we changed them, and we have the latitude to change things. So it’s a work in progress but I think it holds up very well.

KB: Some of these promises are hard to judge, in part because they have fuzzy verbs, like promise 236, “Champion the importance of arts education.”

BA: We started with a definition of what is a promise, and we said that a promise is not a position statement. It is a pledge or guarantee of specific action that is verifiable. Now there are some that are more verifiable than others. Ultimately those ones with the fuzzy verbs are still legitimate promises that our readers are going to want us to make a call on, and we will explain how we do it. We’ll do our best to be fair and objective and precise about it. But I think that’s our value here. It’s not enough to just list the promises. But I think we want to go the extra mile, and say “Let us interpret this.”

KB: What kind of reporting do you do in order to adjudicate these?

BA: We talk to people in the field: experts, analysts, academics, whoever can help us make those valued judgments. Then the writer will make a recommendation.

Then usually three editors or reporters get together and review it. Most of the time we agree, and some of the time we’re down or up a notch, and other times we’re significantly different. There is a very thoughtful, deliberate process in doing these things. In the case of the Obameter so far, because we’re creating something new, we’re still sort of figuring it out.

KB: Are some of the promises things we should expect to hear your reporters ask about during White House press conferences?

BA: No. We talk to the White House through phone calls and e-mail, because it’s a very specific thing. It’s not something that Robert Gibbs can answer from the podium. You want to get to the issue person on the press staff who deals with that one. It will be more of an issue-specific thing, but it’s not the sort of thing you do with the White House press office.

The White House press office has had a difficult transition, in part because they’ve had difficultly getting e-mail in the last couple of weeks. They have not yet appointed one person to deal with us, so we’ve been going to different people depending on the topic. In the grand scheme of things, we haven’t graded that many promises yet, and most of our work in the past two weeks has been Truth-O-Meter items on the stimulus rather than Obameter items.

Now we are about to launch a probably week long, or maybe two-week long, series of things of new Obameter items that would come out of the stimulus. There’s been relatively little action on the Obameter in the last week. Starting tomorrow, there will be four or five new Obameter items every day. For the last few weeks, the action has been less about Obama’s campaign promises because it’s early in the administration; they haven’t had time to make much progress. It’s not like we’re calling them every day and ask: “Hey, what’s up with No. 237?” Instead, we’ve been taking these many, many claims that people have been making about the stimulus bill and fact-checking them for the Truth-O-Meter.

KB: So, the folks in the press office know you’re doing this?

BA: Absolutely. I saw Robert Gibbs at an awards dinner last week and he’s very familiar with us. Some of the other people in the press office have occasionally tried to urge us to give rulings that are more positive to Obama. And we would expect that, just as anyone who we’re fact-checking would try to make the case that their facts are correct.

KB: Do you think this promise-by-promise approach is the best way to evaluate the success of a president?

BA: I would hope that readers are sophisticated enough to know that this is just one measurement of the presidency. As I said in my editor’s note when we launched, the fact that a promise is broken is not necessarily a bad thing. It could be that the president stops pursuing something because he decides that he doesn’t have support for it, or he has other things that have a higher priority. Case in point, one that we now have rated as “broken,”—his promise to create a $3,000 tax credit for each new job that a business creates. That was a promise that Obama made in the campaign. When he first came to the White House, that promise was discussed on Capitol Hill and it received lots of opposition.

Now, is that a bad thing for Obama? Well if you’re strictly judging on a very narrow view of promised kept are good and promises broken are bad, then, I guess. But the reality is there was little support for that even in Obama’s own party. I would argue that the fact that this promise will be broken reflects the will of both parties and maybe the American people.

KB: And some of the promises are pretty controversial, like the carbon cap and trade promise.

BA: I think the cap and trade promises are going to be the toughest for him to keep because there is so much difference of opinion, not just in Congress, but in the nation. Public opinion still needs to sort that one out. I don’t think most people understand cap-and-trade as a concept, and what the economic costs of it would be, so we included anything in our list that fit our definition of promise. It didn’t matter if it was easy or hard. There are some in here that are obviously very easy. Those were some that he got “Promises Kept” on in his first week. We didn’t feel like we could exclude something just because it was easy. And likewise, we didn’t want to exclude something because it was hard. We wanted to include everything that fit our definition.

KB: Does this represent the President’s power accurately?

BA: Well, consider a goal like “Increase love and understanding among mankind.” Some of these do go beyond the job description. But we included it if we could measure it and if it fit our definition of a promise. Because so much of what a president does is lead. The president’s powers don’t just end at being able to sign an executive order, or sign or veto a bill. The president can do many other things to encourage or discourage activities, so it seemed to us that items like that were fair game to include.

KB: Will Obama get credit for accomplishing goals, but not in the ways that he set forth?

BA: That sounds like a “Compromise.” But if the ultimate goal is achieved, we would be flexible, even if it was not precisely how he said he would do it. Common sense is one of our founding principles, and reasonableness. We want to be fair, and reasonable, and accurate, and help people interpret how he’s doing, and it sounds too floppy to say “We’re making it up as we go along.” What we’re doing is trying to be very methodical and fair in developing guidelines as we go along.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.