By Ted Diadiun, The Plain Dealer
A former editor here called on his southern roots for a wonderful term he’d use to describe a situation in which we would get so focused on the minutiae of a project that the whole thing would come grinding to a halt.
“Let’s not get all wrapped around the axle on this thing,” he would say.
That description often applied, I thought, to the process of presenting The Plain Dealer’s work on PolitiFact Ohio, the political truth squad series that appeared in the paper and online almost daily for three years – from July of 2010 until August of last year.
PolitiFact, which was dedicated to analyzing the facts upon which politicians hung their statements, was, day in and day out, one of the best things the newspaper has ever done … right up until the time we published it.
And then a trio of editors would have to take an often nuanced investigation, one that was sometimes the result of days of research and reporting, and try to jam it into one of six arbitrary categories in the accompanying “Truth-O-Meter.” So, a complicated examination of a political statement might wind up being summed up as “mostly true,” “half true” or “barely true.” What’s the difference? Well, that could often depend on where you sat on your own political spectrum.
To show you how silly it could get, a couple of years ago there was a lot of internal hand-wringing over whether one of the ratings should be called “barely true” or “mostly false.” What’s the difference, you ask again? Good question.
But where a statement landed on the needle made a big difference to some readers.
And as a result, the Truth-O-Meter, which was billed as the “heart of PolitiFact,” often had the effect of making readers suspicious of the objectivity of the whole enterprise. I got scores of complaints about the fairness of PolitiFact over the years, and I’ll bet 90 percent of them had to do not with the reporting or the conclusions drawn in the story, but with the grade on the Truth-O-Meter.
“Read the story, and ignore the rating,” I would tell them. But often, people would allow the arbitrary nature of the rating on the meter to overwhelm the objectivity of the reporting in the story.
With all that said, I have two pieces of good news for you today:
It looks like a “truth squad” enterprise in some form will be returning to The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com. And whatever form this takes, it will likely not be accompanied by a Truth-O-Meter or anything like it.