Meet the People Whose Job Is Checking Facts
We’ve got enough political commentators. We need more fact checkers.
Keeping candidates accountable
Alex Baumgart knew the moment he learned about the Watergate scandal in the sixth grade that he would end up covering politics for a living. Baumgart, now 25, is the individual contributions researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent, nonpartisan organization.
During last year’s presidential election, he spent a lot of time keeping track of the financial contributions candidates received from a variety of groups, including finance and real estate, fossil fuels, and even from Hollywood. The organization’s copywriters used Baumgart’s data in articles published on the organization’s website, Opensecrets.org, which was used as a fact-checking source for those wanting clarity on where candidates got their money.
“It’s an accountability thing,” he says. “You want to know who is financially supporting candidates and how their support may influence candidates’ policies and regulations. It all comes down to transparency.”
Baumgart says his work carries a tremendous responsibility. Helping Americans gain access to factual and easy-to-read information about the role of money in politics and policy, he believes, strengthens the nation’s democracy.
Angie Drobnic Holan
Ranking degrees of accuracy
Angie Drobnic Holan has always been a political news junkie. When she was 11, she faithfully tuned in to The McLaughlin Group, a weekly public affairs TV program hosted by political commentator John McLaughlin.
Today Holan is pursuing a similar mission to that of the now-deceased McLaughlin, but she doesn’t provide commentary on politicians’ statements—she fact-checks them.
In 2007, Holan, who had worked in journalism for nearly 15 years, helped launch PolitiFact, a fact-checking website run by editors from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida. At PolitiFact, Holan rates the accuracy of claims made by America’s elected officials, lobbyists, and interest groups.
Holan uses a variety of fact-checking tools: She asks the politicians themselves for their sources, and searches online news databases and archives. Politifact won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election and conducted a high-profile fact-checking effort during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act.
“We debunked a lot of rumors and misconceptions around that law,” Holan says.
Fact-checking is satisfying work, she says, because it informs democracy.
Taking leads from whispers to fact
Gary Ruskin is the co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry watchdog group, where he produces reports that reveal the harmful effects of chemicals used in the food system.
Ruskin says most of his investigations stem from leads given to him by food industry insiders and whistleblowers, sources with whom he has made connections over the past 30 years. Ruskin then tracks down official documents to fact-check these leads and publishes the documents on the organization’s website, where members of the public and media professionals can also use them as a fact-checking source.
In 2013, while director of the Center for Corporate Policy, Ruskin published Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Non-profits, a report detailing how some businesses spy on nonprofit groups they regard as potential threats. He says fact-checking information and tips from sources was a crucial part in publishing the report.
“I really had to put on my fact-checking hat and read documents line by line with a skeptical eye, because our work is only as good as our reputation,” Ruskin says. “So if we say things that aren’t true, then no one would listen to us.”