Political money talks. PolitiFact Virginia listens—and then talks back

As campaign ads swamp the Commonwealth, site aims to “explain what the facts are”

VIRGINIA — Need proof that Virginia is a battleground state in the 2012 election? In one recent week, the presidential campaigns and their super PAC allies aired more ads in Richmond than in any other market, according to a June 24 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And as campaign cash flows into the state faster than the surging rapids along the James River in Richmond, PolitiFact Virginia is watching. That’s good news for Commonwealth residents trying to make sense of the claims saturating the airwaves.

PolitiFact Virginia, a collaboration between the national Politifact and the Times-Dispatch, is staffed full-time by editor Warren Fiske and reporter Sean Gorman. Reporter Nancy Madsen contributes three days a week.

Fiske and Gorman sat down on Wednesday at the Times-Dispatch office in downtown Richmond for a talk about their duties and Virginia politics in general.

Fiske is a veteran political reporter who worked with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot from 1985 to 2009 before joining the project two years ago. “It’s been an interesting venture,” he said.

PolitiFact wields a bludgeon with its Truth-O-Meter’s six categories for rating political claims and statements (true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, pants on fire). But Fiske sees the project’s stories as representing a more nuanced approach to reporting than a traditional beat allows, with more attention devoted to the meaning of words.

“You’re really down in the weeds,” he said.

Selecting claims to vet is a group effort. The staff checks out a variety of sources, including other print and broadcast media, political blogs, campaign websites and press releases, YouTube ad posts, the national PolitiFact, The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog, and Factcheck.org.

And with ads airing so frequently in Virginia, subjects come up just in the course of having the television on, Gorman said. “It’s a challenge keeping up with it all,” Fiske added.

So does PolitiFact Virginia have an impact on how politicians and candidates go about business?

The press offices for Bob McDonnell, the state’s Republican governor, and Senate rivals Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and George Allen, a Republican, did not respond to two e-mail requests for comment. But Fiske noted that McDonnell’s office watches the site’s Bob-O-Meter, which tracks the governor’s performance in fulfilling promises from his 2010 campaign for office.

And the project has clearly caught other politicians’ attention—as the PolitiFact staff knows from the pushback it encounters.

Unsurprisingly, critiquing the accuracy of public figures’ statements can make relationships more contentious than in regular beat reporting, Fiske noted. Candidates and campaigns will fight for upgrades in the ratings. “It’s been pretty head-to-head.”

The Politifact crew is open to amending its ratings as needed. They recently revised their assessment of a Kaine ad attacking Allen’s record on the budget after they were persuaded that the initial item downplayed the best metric for comparing deficits across time. (Under the revision, the ruling went from Mostly True to Half True.)

PolitiFact Virginia’s content isn’t limited to the website. There’s a print component in the Times-Dispatch; a PolitiFact minute airs Fridays and Sundays on Richmond’s NBC affiliate, WWBT-TV, with political reporter Ryan Nobles; and Virginia Public Radio’s Richmond station, WCVE, airs a segment with the PolitiFact staff on Tuesday mornings. PolitiFact’s reports are also picked by other media outlets in the state, including the Daily Press in Newport News.

As for the audience, Fiske had only anecdotal information. As expected, the online consumers seem to be younger and hail from outside Richmond, while print consumers tend to be more mature.

One continuing challenge for the project is timeliness. A PolitiFact post on June 25 dealt with claims made on June 5, nearly three weeks earlier, by Democrat U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly. Connolly, in urging Republicans to support a new stimulus package, claimed that President Reagan had raised taxes repeatedly during his presidency. (The ruling? True.) And the most recent item, posted June 28 by Fiske, dealt with a commercial that began airing in state on June 17.

Fiske said he’d like to be able to respond more quickly, but noted the project’s staffing constraints and the time devoted to each post. He said PolitiFact tries to plan out posts a week in advance.

Looking ahead to Election Day, Fiske said his staff will focus on vetting campaign ads, especially in the presidential and senate races, and on the debates between Allen and Kaine. They also will draw from the national PolitiFact and from partners in other states for help in evaluating ads that run in multiple markets, and may also look at some House races as needed.

And Fiske is hopeful that work done now will pay off in the fall, as the campaigns’ claims are recycled.

Already, he said, he believes the project has “made campaigns more aware of their rhetoric.”

The hope is that that will in turn improve the political dialogue—and help voters in the process. “I’m hoping that we can educate people,” he said, “that we can explain what the facts are.”

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.