Sept. 20, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

How Much Do Fact-Checkers Matter?

“Their selective reasoning or arbitrary standards left much to be desired,” said Kevin Madden, who advised Romney on communications strategy and traveled with him constantly during the final months of the campaign. “If some of these fact-checkers were around in 1984, they would have given [President Ronald] Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ spot a ‘pants on fire’ rating because, well, somewhere as that ad is playing it’s not morning but instead it’s nighttime.”

But despite Madden’s criticism, he doesn’t think the fact-checkers’ work had much influence. “They just became another layer of sound in an already noisy conversation,” he said.

In an interview with Roll Call, Kessler said he wasn’t aiming to “change the behavior” of the campaigns but rather wanted to inform the voters. On that front he believes he was successful, although he conceded that the campaigns — and politicians generally — ignore the fact-checkers “if they think their message is effective.”

Still, Kessler noted that each of the campaigns had communications aides specifically designated to deal with fact-checkers, and he said there were times when his analysis resulted in the candidates making slight adjustments to their rhetoric or ad scripts, though not their overall messaging strategy. Kessler said he tries to focus his fact-checks on issues that are “black and white, easy to prove” and shies away from analyzing philosophical opinions.

“When numbers don’t add up, it’s a great fact-check. Other times it gets really subtle and difficult,” Kessler said.

He agreed that the media fact-checker is more of a fixture now compared to four years ago. Kessler said that while they were around during Obama’s first presidential run, journalists and media outlets made more of an effort to fact-check claims by the candidates during the 2012 cycle, particularly regarding what they said during the multiple presidential debates.

Democratic strategist Phil Singer, who worked on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said that when fact-checkers stick to the knowable subjects based on numbers and arithmetic, they can have an effect on a political campaign.

But Singer suggested that they lose their credibility when they move beyond that scope and attempt to referee claims based on philosophy or moral values.

“Fact-checkers are at their best when they are vetting a claim that is either true or false. When they address claims whose accuracy lies somewhere in the middle, they lose their significance and become punditry,” Singer said.

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