The Pulitzer Prize-winning sleuths at PolitiFact have quickly reversed their appointment of former Florida Rep. Alan Grayson as a “reader advocate” after journalists cried foul over his past allegations of domestic abuse and threatening behavior toward reporters. They are not, however, reversing their dubious decision to bring in a “reader advocate” in the first place.
The about-face came about two hours after the Tampa Bay-based outfit announced (in a post that has since been apparently deleted) a grant-funded experiment that would allow two former politicians “to critique our fact-checks and provide their own expert insight on the issues confronting voters.” Grayson, a former House Democrat, would have been part of a team with former Republican congressman David Jolly.
“We sought out a Democrat and Republican to critique our work in order to try to improve the trust and credibility in fact-checking and PolitiFact,” PolitiFact Executive Chairman Aaron Sharockman told Splinter in an email Thursday. “It has become clear our choice of Alan Grayson did not meet that threshold to many. I called Alan a short while ago and informed him that we would be canceling our agreement for him to write on PolitiFact.”
First, let’s break down the concept: PolitiFact wants to give politicians a platform to critique fact-checking of politicians. What’s more, it intends to lavish that role with the altruistic-sounding descriptor of “reader advocate.” It’s a twisted take on an ombudsmen or public editor, in-house critics whose sole role is to advocate for the audience. The notion that two men barely out of office (both left Congress in 2017) could similarly internalize how to put readers’ interests first is bizarre, and the notion that facts need to be bolstered by the carefully parceled-out opinions of exactly one Democrat and exactly one Republican is a moldy cliché straight out of the most tired traditions of television.
Even if you support this idea, though, PolitiFact’s choice blew up in its face in record time.
“David and Alan are both particularly qualified, we think, to critique the work of PolitiFact, because they’ve been subject to our fact-checks as members of Congress,” Sharockman wrote in a post announcing the new role.
Many begged to disagree. The move got instant pushback on Twitter from political reporters, who recalled a 2016 incident in which Grayson threatened to arrest a Politico journalist for asking follow-up questions about his ex-wife’s domestic abuse allegations:
There’s more. Grayson has a—how should I put this—mediocre record by the Truth-O-Meter’s own measure:
That comes in addition to a raft of other boneheaded remarks, including when Grayson called a reporter from The Tampa Bay Times—PolitiFact’s parent organization—a “shitting robot.”
If you inferred from such easily Google-able evidence that a media organization, particularly one called, uh, PolitiFact, shouldn’t reward a man like Grayson, you would be correct. When I initially emailed Sharockman about the decision to pick the bomb-throwing former congressman, however, he issued a lukewarm defense:
I’m not going to defend Alan’s actions or past behavior. We are aware of it of course (we are part of the Tampa Bay Times).
I do think what’s getting lost is what we’re actually trying to do.
David and Alan will have the opportunity to add additional insight and perspective as a P.S. to our fact-checks. They will not be involved in the ratings or our work. This is an experiment through April to see what readers think. Our hypothesis is that having a Republican or Democrat validate our reporting or additional context to it may help convince some additional people to trust our fact-checking reports. If it has the opposite effect, we’ll stop.
Between now and April, we will publish hundreds of fact-checks and I expect David and Alan to weigh in on a dozen or so. And, and this is important, if it doesn’t work, or we don’t find their insights useful, we can pull the plug.
In the end, PolitiFact cut its ties.
By the time I had a chance to follow up on whether there would be any money exchanged in this relationship, Sharockman had already told me of Grayson’s dismissal. “We remain committed to this experiment,” he wrote, “and will be seeking out a Democrat to replace Alan.”