CAPITOL LOOKOUT: FactCheck.org separates fact from fiction

Posted on Written by Michael Sciulla
Michael Sciulla

With many members of the marine industry descending this week on Washington, D.C., for the annual American Boating Congress, those who couldn’t make it but still want to be informed should visit FactCheck.org for the straight scoop on public policy issues that are being debated not only in our nation’s capital, but perhaps around the water cooler as well.

Imagine being able to get nonpartisan factual information about such hotly contested issues as taxes, gun control, climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline. Having spent nearly 40 years in Washington as a congressional staffer, lobbyist, advocate and journalist, I find that FactCheck.org has become an indispensable tool for separating political fact from political fiction in a town filled with “spin doctors.”

FactCheck.org should prove especially useful during this all-important congressional election cycle, when so much will be at stake in November. But don’t take my word for it. In addition to receiving numerous professional awards, FactCheck.org was named one of the “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without” by Time magazine in 2006 and PC Magazine called it one of the “20 Best Political Websites” in 2008.

By its own account, FactCheck.org is a nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. It monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and press releases. Its goal is to apply the best practices of journalism and scholarship and increase public knowledge and understanding.

Take the story that surfaced last fall on the Internet that Obamacare would provide free gas for low-income people so they could get to hospitals. The talking heads on cable news must have been spinning when this gem hit the airwaves. According to FactCheck.org, it turns out that this rumor was based on a “story” in the satirical newspaper The Daily Currant and had absolutely no basis in fact.

And what about the one about how members of Congress and thousands of congressional staffers would be exempt from having to buy into the Affordable Care Act? Nothing could be further from the truth, according to FactCheck.org. Its research shows that not only are they required to buy insurance through the exchanges, but that members of Congress and their staffs also face additional requirements that most Americans don’t.

On a more complicated note, how about the assertion that China holds the bulk of U.S. debt and that American foreign policy is constrained by this “fact”? There’s only a grain of truth in this, according to FactCheck.org, which points out that nearly 40 percent of our debt is held by federal government accounts (including two Social Security trust funds), 19 percent is owed to a variety of foreign nations, 9 percent to mutual funds and state and local governments, 8 percent to China and 7 percent to Japan.

Concerned that the answers FactCheck.org provides might lean to the partisan left or the right? The fact is that FactCheck.org has an impeccable establishment pedigree. It is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which was created by the Annenberg Foundation at the direction of the late Walter Annenberg, who created TV Guide in 1952. He later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1969 to 1974, appointed by President Richard Nixon. He became a champion of public television, receiving many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan in 1986.

Annenberg eventually sold Triangle Publications (TV Guide, Daily Racing Form and a few other publications) to publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch in 1988 for $3 billion, announcing that he would devote the rest of his life to philanthropy. Among his legacies are the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. That said, Annenberg never attained a college degree. He dropped out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why is this background information important? Because those who claim to have “the facts” when it comes to public policy must be above reproach if they expect to be taken seriously in a town where partisan politics turns every issue black and white or is nuanced into fifty shades of gray.

Two keys to determining the credibility of any organization involved in public policy are to follow the money and see where the operating funds are coming from, as well as the experience and reputation of those who are running the organization.

According to FactCheck.org, prior to fiscal 2010 the organization was supported entirely by the Annenberg and Flora Family Foundations. In 2010 it began accepting donations from individual members of the public for the first time. FactCheck.org’s policy is to disclose the identity of any individual donor giving $1,000 or more. It also discloses the total amount, average amount and number of individual donations. The organization says it does not seek and has never accepted, directly or indirectly, any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

As to the reputations behind the organization, Brooks Jackson, a reporter for the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN and the author of “Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process,” launched FactCheck.org in 2003 and now serves as director emeritus. Current directors include Eugene Kiely, who comes from USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of “Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy” and “Everything You Think You Know About Politics … and Why You’re Wrong.”

Have a public policy question that you would like to get a straight answer to? Go to the “Ask FactCheck” section of FactCheck.org. or peruse its home page for its take on the most current controversies feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Received a viral rumor in your e-mail lately and don’t know whether it’s true or false? Check out the “Viral Spiral” section of its website, which is dedicated to the most popular online myths that the organization has debunked.

And for those who really want to be in the know about the upcoming congressional elections, FactCheck.org’s “Players Guide 2014” list of organizations that will be raising and spending money to influence the elections is a must-read.

Michael Sciulla established boating’s first federal political action committee and testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while also serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.

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Comments

4 comments on “CAPITOL LOOKOUT: FactCheck.org separates fact from fiction

  1. Randy Repass

    Michael,

    Thanks for the info on factcheck. I have heard of them but had no background nor had I used their site.

    There is a lot of misinformation out there. Glad there is a place to find “objective” info.

    Walter Annenberg was sure behind some good organizations!

    Randy

  2. Ken Stofflet

    Thanks Michael, great information to have. There at least 50 shades so this will be a great help.

  3. John Dane

    Thanks Michael,

    Facts can be so inconvenient. They are annoying to political agendas, ideological crusades and spin-doctors.

    Truth may be relative, but certainly the search for truth must start with a sound factual basis!

    John Dane

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