Farley jiggled his knee and twirled a pen as the candidates began to answer. “Huh-uh. Not true,” he said a moment later, leaning away from the screen, shaking his head.
Ninety seconds into the debate, he hunched over his keyboard to begin his first correction of the night.
“Well,” he wrote, “that didn’t take long.”
For Farley and his six co-workers at Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan nonprofit group on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the presidential election has become a predictable cycle of ambiguity and distortion: Candidates speak in half-truths and exaggerations, which are then amplified by the media and sensationalized in attack ads. Misinformation burns a trail across the Internet. The public trust erodes.
The mission of Factcheck.org is etched onto a small sign in the company’s office — “Just The Facts.” But rarely are facts absolute in the election of 2012. There are Mitt Romney’s facts and President Obama’s facts, liberal facts and conservative facts. There are facts provided by the mainstream media (“sometimes slanted,” Farley says), think tanks (“flawed”), analysts (“opinionated”) and television commercials (“not to be trusted”). There are Internet facts that are not, in fact, facts at all.
As Obama and Romney prepare for their second debate Tuesday, just three weeks from Election Day, the presidential campaign is less a referendum on the facts than a fight over whose facts to believe.
It is Farley’s job to sort that out. He moved to Pennsylvania 10 months ago after several years as an investigative reporter and political fact-checker in Florida, a job that suits his natural fastidiousness. On the night of the vice-presidential debate, there was a dust remover on one side of his desk, a lint remover on the other and a can of Apple-Cinnamon Glade perched high on the shelf. He had taped a headline from The Onion to the wall behind one of his computers: “Valiant Fact-Checkers Once Again Save American Political System from Descending into Corruption.”
“Everybody else has a side in this race,” he said, “and it is my job to walk right down the middle.”
Factcheck.org has tried to build its organization in the perilous middle at a time when fact-checking has come in vogue. A few other nonprofits and several media organizations — including The Washington Post — also employ political fact-checkers, making the field considerably more crowded than it was during the last presidential election. In a campaign season rife with voter skepticism, there are instant fact-checkers, television fact-checkers and fact-checkers employed by both campaigns.