More and more, the "news" consists of commentators telling you what to think about the issues of the day. Now, thanks to PolitiFact, it's possible to see which of them root their assertions in reality and which are talking out of their something-other-than-their-heads.
Since last year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, has been tracking the statements of prominent pundits and assessing them for accuracy, as it does with lobbyists, politicians and other government officials. Each questionable claim is researched by PolitiFact staffers and then rated on a "Truth-O-Meter," on a scale running from "True" to "Pants on Fire."
While PolitiFact only looks at individual assertions, I decided to aggregate them to get a quantitative sense of where each pundit falls on the truthiness spectrum. I took each PolitiFact verdict, converted it into a numerical score (100 for "True," 80 for "Mostly True" and so on) and then calculated each commentator's average.
A word about the statistical significance of my findings: There's probably not much. The sample size here is quite small. Only three pundits -- George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck -- have gotten the PolitiFact treatment at least 10 times. I calculated averages for the nine pundits who had scored at least five entries.
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Of those nine, Will received the highest score, with an accuracy average of 72.7. The lowest score any of his statements received was a 40, or "Barely True." The lowest score, of 31.7, went to Limbaugh. Six of his 12 claims were rated either "False" or "Pants on Fire." Beck, pictured above, fared only a little better: His average was 38.8.
Among other notable pundits, Bill O'Reilly scraped the bottom with a 32 average, while Sean Hannity, whose show follows O'Reilly's on Fox News's prime time schedule, was just a hair's width less accurate than Will, averaging 72. (Both of those pundits had only five entries.) MSNBC's two stars, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, scored matching averages of 54.3, while Paul Krugman and Donna Brazile also tied at 64. You can see my full spreadsheet here.
As I said, the sample size makes it questionable whether these averages are accurate reflections of accuracy, but they'll become more reliable as PolitiFact's database grows. "Our challenge is limited resources," PolitiFact founder and editor Bill Adair told me via email. "We check not only pundits, but President Obama, other White House officials, members of Congress, candidates for Congress and even chain e-mails."
In case you're wondering, PolitiFact's staffers rely mostly on their guts -- and the occasional suggestion from readers -- in deciding which claims to research. "We look for claims that we think readers would be curious about," Adair says. "If we think someone would wonder, 'Is that true?', then it's a good item for us to check."
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