Adair says that while there are drawbacks to the scheme, the Truth-O-Meter, and other snapshot fact-check devices like it, ultimately adds value to the political discourse. When PolitiFact was starting almost four years ago, Adair says, “The idea was to use a device that would show people the relative accuracy of a statement and to use a device that would show that very concisely.” The concise rulings, says Adair, “are a tremendous reader service.” They cut through the political rhetoric to issue concise judgments and when pooled, like on this page breaking down the statements of Michele Bachmann, they can reveal quite a lot about a candidate or organization’s commitment to accuracy. “The tradeoff,” admits Adair, “is that sometimes complexity doesn’t fit neatly into our six ratings.”
Conciseness might be the problem. As Roger Ebert doesn’t consider two different films to which he awards three stars to be of the exact equal quality or entertainment value, the severity of two “Pants on Fire”s can also differ. Sometimes greatly. Unless a reader goes beyond the gimmick, they wouldn’t know. And the gimmick being there—making life easier and reading time shorter—might encourage them to stay put. A reader who just saw the DCCC ad labeled “Pants on Fire” wouldn’t know that there was at least a basis for its claims. All he’d know would be that the DCCC is a liar, liar.
Adair doesn’t see it that way. The rulings don’t undercut the more nuanced reports; they potentially lead readers to them. At least, the readers that we could expect to want to read a long piece. “I’ve always thought about the design of PolitiFact as layered,” says Adair. “If you want an overview of how accurate a political statement is, all you need to do is look at the person who said it, the quote, and the rating, and you may have all that you need to know about that. But if you want to know more, you can read the full article, which are detailed, and always include sources.”
There’s a practical matter, too. “We’ve had long articles about fact-checking for a long time,” says Adair. “The problem with long articles is, people don’t read them at all.”
Best get to a ruling then.
There is little doubt that in fighting for nuance and detail, tools like the Truth-o-Meter can themselves be reductive. “Pants on Fire” does not tell us much, and may itself mislead at times. But the gauge does not act in isolation—it is bolstered by solid, transparent reporting, and through its very webby and gimmicky reductiveness draws attention to that more substantive reporting.
all most responsible news organizations, PolitiFact is open about corrections—it has even changed its mind on occasion and switched a Truth-o-Meter decision. Beutler’s reaction is part of PolitiFact at work, in fact. [Updated with link.] “We recognize that often some of our biggest fans are going to disagree with some of our rulings,” says Adair. “And that’s part of the process.”