True or false: PolitiFact, pols and pundits

True or false: PolitiFact, pols and pundits has checked the veracity of more than 3,500 people and organizations. With permission, I grabbed data for those with four or more PolitiFact checks, then averaged their rulings to give each a score.

A score of 1.00 means all checks were true. All false would be 0.00.

The average score was right in the middle: 0.50. Most groupings of people were near average, whether Democrats (0.52) or Republicans (0.43), politicians (0.48) or pundits (0.45), female (0.50) or male (0.47).

The most truthful group was — drum roll — comedians (0.64). Print journalists (0.63) weren’t far behind.

Average of checks for different groups

People (0.48) were more accurate than organizations (0.36). Advocacy groups (0.38), party committees (0.37) and PACs (0.31) all were about equally truth-challenged. The losers, lying at chart bottom, were talk radio (0.19) and social media (0.13).

Details follow, but for truth-seekers here’s a summary: Heed comedians; ignore talk radio, party organizations, progressive advocacy groups and conservative PACs. And pay no attention to anything in social media — those scored abysmally: tweets (0.27), Facebook posts (0.22), viral-images (0.07), blog-postings (0.05) and chain-email (0.03).

Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.

Ernest Hemingway (1954)
Outlet (total checks)Score
New York Times (35)0.69
HBO (20)0.67
Weekly Standard (9)0.56
CNN (23)0.49
ABC News (22)0.48
MSNBC (83)0.47
Fox News (85)0.44
Media with two or more PolitiFact-checked people

Media mendacity

RJI’s middle name is Journalism, so let’s start by examining journalists. The table on the right lists the media outlets with two or more PolitiFact-checked people. (As with all the charts, “people” includes only those with four or more claims checked — see the methodologies section.)

The New York Times led the media pack with David Brooks (0.80), Paul Krugman (0.74), Nicholas Kristof (0.70) and Gail Collins (0.53). Comics John Oliver (0.80) and Bill Maher (0.53) placed HBO a close second. The Weekly Standard was third with writers Bill Kristol (0.56) and Stephen Hayes (0.55).

Kudos to NBC/MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, the highest scoring journalist at 0.88. Unfortunately, his MSNBC colleagues dragged his network down into nearly last place.

Talking heads

Not only do governments lie, they won’t hesitate to burn news agencies. In a desperate moment, they’ll use any sucker they can find to get a point across.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone (2016)

The interactive chart below is a gathering of well-known newsmakers: politicians, pundits, comedians and talk-show hosts. Those at the top are relatively more reliable. Those farther to the right on the chart have had more statements checked by PolitiFact.

Administration (total checks)Score
Obama (1,046)0.57
Bush (227)0.43
Trump (470)0.21
Presidential administrations since PolitiFact’s 2007 debut.

Presidential probity

All the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.

Harry Truman, Letter to his sister (1947)

PolitiFact began in 2007, during George W. Bush’s second term. Since then they’ve checked more than 1,700 proclamations by presidents and their staff.

The table to the right lists the order of executive honesty.

Below is a list of individuals responsible for White House true and tall tales.

Person (checks)POTUSPositionScore
Matthew Dowd (7)BushChief Political Strategist0.71
Robert Gibbs (7)ObamaPress Secretary0.71
Rob Portman (48)BushDirector of the OMB0.65
Michelle Obama (10)ObamaFLOTUS0.65
Thomas Perez (4)ObamaSecretary of Labor0.63
David Axelrod (18)ObamaSenior Advisor0.60
Stephanie Cutter (5)ObamaCampaign Manager0.60
Hillary Clinton (293)ObamaSecretary of State0.59
Van Jones (6)ObamaSpecial Advisor for Green Jobs0.58
Barack Obama (596)ObamaPOTUS0.57
Bill Richardson (17)ObamaSecretary of Commerce (nominated)0.57
Austan Goolsbee (4)ObamaChair, Council of Economic Advisers0.56
George W. Bush (4)BushPOTUS0.56
Rahm Emanuel (7)ObamaChief of Staff0.54
Joe Biden (75)ObamaVPOTUS0.50
Karl Rove (17)BushDeputy Chief of Staff0.44
Mike Pence (40)TrumpVPOTUS0.41
Ed Gillespie (12)BushCounselor to the President0.41
Dick Cheney (17)BushVPOTUS0.39
Janet Napolitano (4)ObamaSecretary of Homeland Security0.35
Ted Cruz (118)BushAssociate Deputy Attorney General0.31
Reince Priebus (28)TrumpChief of Staff0.27
Donald Trump (359)TrumpPOTUS0.23
Sean Spicer (6)TrumpCommunications Director0.22
Ben Carson (28)TrumpSecretary of HUD0.16
Paul Manafort (4)TrumpCampaign Chairman0.10
Kellyanne Conway (5)TrumpCounseler to the President0.05
Mitch Daniels (4)BushDirector of the OMB-0.03

Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.

H. L. Mencken, “A Little Book in C Major,” (1916)
Person (score)Checks
Barack Obama (0.57)596
Donald Trump (0.23)359
Hillary Clinton (0.59)293
Mitt Romney (0.44)206
John McCain (0.48)184
The five people with the most PolitiFact-checked statements.

Check-ered pasts

Who gets checked, and how?

Here’s how PolitiFact describes their process: “Every day, PolitiFact and PunditFact staffers look for statements that can be checked. We comb through speeches, news stories, press releases, campaign brochures, TV ads, Facebook postings and transcripts of TV and radio interviews. Because we can’t possibly check all claims, we select the most newsworthy and significant ones.”

The most scrutinized were presidential party nominees (table at right). The graph below breaks PolitiFact-checks into groups, showing how many times each was checked:

Total checks for different groups

PolitiFact checked eight percent more Republicans (224) than Democrats (208). But they checked Republican statements 43 percent more times (total 4,503; average 20) than Democrats’ (total 3,146; average 15). This GOP-skew is largely due to PolitiFact’s most active publishing partnerships being in Republican-leaning states (Florida, Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin and Virginia).

Their growing number of partners are now in 18 states, including PolitiFact Missouri here at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Journalists are told to never print something we don’t understand — but how often do we print information that our sources aren’t quite clear on or don’t have backup for? Sometimes we don’t know how credible our sources are because we don’t ask where they got their facts.

Adam Aton, “How Mizzou Journalism Students Help Fact-Check for PolitiFact,” Mediashift (2016)
Map of state partners
Map of state partners Truth-o-Meter: True

Straight shooters

The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1989)

The time has come to honor the forthright folk at the top of the list. PolitiFact rulings show these sincere souls most often tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

Person/Group (number of PolitiFact checks)AffiliationScore
Edward Lindsey (5)RepublicanGA0.90
Kirk Watson (5)DemocratTX0.90
Chuck Todd (6)NBC “Meet the Press”0.88
Keith Faber (4)RepublicanOH0.88
Michael Bennet (4)DemocratCO0.88
Leonard Lance (6)RepublicanNJ0.83
Julián Castro (12)DemocratTX0.81
Portland Public Schools (4)(government)OR0.81
Nina Turner (4)DemocratOH0.81
Jeff Brandes (4)RepublicanFL0.81
John Oliver (10)HBO “Last Week Tonight”0.80
David Brooks (5)New York Times0.80
Michael McCaul (10)RepublicanTX0.78
Andrew Cuomo (9)DemocratNY0.78
Jerry Brown (11)DemocratCA0.77
Alex Sink (19)DemocratFL0.75
Chris Redfern (8)DemocratOH0.75
Ron Wyden (7)DemocratOR0.75
Donna Howard (7)DemocratTX0.75
Sacramento Bee Editorial Board (6)(newspaper)CA0.75
Stephen Colbert (5)CBS “The Late Show”0.75
Bob Corker (5)RepublicanTN0.75
Casey Cagle (5)RepublicanGA0.75
Catherine Hanaway (4)RepublicanMO0.75
Chris Taylor (4)DemocratWI0.75
Jeff Stone (4)RepublicanWI0.75
Chris Van Hollen (4)DemocratMD0.75 Truth-o-Meter: Pants on Fire!

Trousers aflame

Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.

Portland (Maine) Gazette (1820)

Then there are the cellar-dwellers, those prevaricators unable to utter anything but fabrications. Their fictions are found in progressive advocacy groups, conservative talk radio, Democratic party committees, GOP-leaning PACs, unprincipled politicians and, of course, all manner of social media.

We shall now name and shame those who, in PolitFact judgments, have repeatedly born false witness:

Person/Group (checks)AffiliationScore
Ann Coulter (13)(conservative commentator)0.20
New Jersey Democratic State Committee (5)DemocratNJ (party organization)0.20
Dan Sullivan (5)RepublicanAK0.20
Ted Nugent (4)RepublicanTX0.20
Christine O’Donnell (4)RepublicanDE0.20
Michele Bachmann (61)RepublicanMN0.19
Jan Brewer (6)RepublicanAZ0.19
Carlos Beruff (4)RepublicanFL0.19
Scott Fitzgerald (4)RepublicanWI0.19
William O’Brien (4)RepublicanNH0.19
Andrew Napolitano (8)Fox News0.18
Progress Texas (6)(progressive advocacy group)0.18
Lee Holloway (5)(none)WI0.18
Democratic Party of Wisconsin (24)Democrat(party organization)0.17
Americans for Prosperity (18)(conservative advocacy group)0.17
Chris Larson (13)DemocratWI0.17
Ben Carson (28)RepublicanMD0.16
Future PAC (Oregon House Democrats) (4)DemocratOR (PAC)0.16
Cathie Adams (4)RepublicanTX0.16
Steve King (4)RepublicanIA0.16
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (34)Democrat(party organization)0.15
Occupy Democrats (12)(progressive advocacy group)0.15
American Future Fund (5)(conservative advocacy group)0.15
Charles Bass (5)RepublicanNH0.15
Rush Limbaugh (37)(conservative talk radio)0.14
Robert Hurt (7)RepublicanVA0.14
Alcee Hastings (4)DemocratFL0.14
Laura Ingraham (9)ABC News0.10
American Commitment (4)(conservative PAC)0.10
Paul Manafort (4)Republican 0.10
Louie Gohmert (10)RepublicanTX0.09
Viral image (28)(social media)0.07
Richard Saslaw (6)DemocratVI0.07
Larry Elder (4)(conservative talk radio)0.06
Jon Runyan (4)RepublicanNJ0.06
Bloggers (94)(social media)0.05
Kellyanne Conway (5)Republican 0.05
Chain email (178)(social media)0.03
Steve Stockman (5)RepublicanTX0.03
Government is Not God PAC (6)(conservative PAC)-0.01
Mitch Daniels (4)RepublicanIN-0.03
John DePetro (6)(conservative talk radio)-0.05
Workers’ Voice (4)(union PAC)-0.05

The negative numbers are a result of too many Pants-on-Fire! rulings, explained in the next section on methodology. One note: PACs on average (0.31) are an undependable bunch. The Workers’ Voice, a PAC for the AFL-CIO, came in dead last (-0.05). But the AFL-CIO itself had a good score (0.56), higher than the average for unions (0.44).

We’re all publishers now. (Sharing a piece of news with 900 Facebook friends is not talking. It’s publishing.) And publishing bullshit is extremely destructive: It makes it harder for the rest of us to distinguish between bogus news and something real, awful, and urgent.

Michelle Nijhuis, “The Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention” (2014)

Mostly True0.75
Half True0.50
Mostly False0.25
The negative “Pants” number makes below-zero scores possible.


Above results are from PolitiFact data gathered in early February 2017. At the time they listed 3,577 “Speakers” with a total of 12,769 rulings on checked claims.

I used data only for those who’d had four or more checks (enough rulings to show a pattern). This subset of PolitiFact data has 538 people or organizations with a total of 8,991 rulings (spreadsheet).

Each person’s score is calculated by assigning a number value to each level of ruling, listed in the table to the right, then averaging all their PolitiFact rulings.

Group scores are the average of the scores of all the people in the group (not the average of all the individual rulings of the people in the group). In the tables, a “PAC” designation includes “Super PAC” 501(c)(4) organizations, though technically not PACs. “Pundits” are those listed at PunditFact.

Media people are associated with the outlet they worked at when most of their claims were checked. So Stephen Colbert is listed as CBS (not Comedy Central) and Megyn Kelly as Fox News (though now at NBC).

This same criteria applies to people with dual roles: talk radio and TV news, politician and pundit. I assigned them the role in which they made the plurality of their PolitiFact-checked statements. Because of this, for example, Matthew Dowd is listed as part of ABC News (not as a Bush administration politician) while David Axelrod is listed as a politician (not as his current position with CNN).

Thanks to Josef Verbanac, Claire Golding, Mike Jenner and Aaron Sharockman for help with this research. The top image is from a William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, “Shall the People Rule?” (circa 1900), at the Library of Congress.

Finally, I chose PolitiFact because I consider their checks thorough, nonpartisan and among the best in the business.

But when our elected officials and our political campaign become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect.

Barack Obama, Toner Prize for Excellence Awards: transcript | video (2016)

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