September 27, 2017

TULSA, Oklahoma — The Wi-Fi password at the Tulsa County Republican headquarters is Reagan2016. Capital R, no dashes.

It was there — in the shadow of a life-size cutout of Donald Trump and several Make America Great Again signs — that the unlikely occurred Tuesday evening: Four PolitiFact journalists and eight local Republican organizers sat around some folding tables and talked it out.

And guess what? The world didn’t fall apart.

“Welcome to the reddest of the red states,” said David Arnett, a management and media consultant who helps with communications for the Tulsa GOP, near the start of the meeting. “I appreciate you coming here.”

The meeting was the second official event of PolitiFact’s first day in Tulsa, which the fact-checking organization is visiting this week as part of its tour of conservative cities across America. The GOP meeting — a key component of PolitiFact’s four-day plan there to reach out to more Donald Trump voters — followed a visit to the Tulsa World newspaper to discuss their new partnership.

That partnership, in which PolitiFact — the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — will let the World run its fact-checked statements by local politicians, proved to be a point of contention for local Republicans during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have some suspicion of our local newspaper based on decades of experience and their failure to incorporate in their editorial process anybody that could be recognized as a conservative,” Arnett said. “If everything they print is always strange, then there’s a point where we as conservatives shut down and find other alternatives for information … that’s the fastest way for a Republican to lose, is to be endorsed by the Tulsa World.”

That issue launched a long series of back-and-forth discussions about topics most media ethicists cover over a period of months, if not years. Are local newspapers biased? Are all reporters liberal? Can primary sources be apolitical? Does objective journalism even exist?

The meeting posed more questions than answers.

“Americans as a whole, we don’t trust the news anymore because the news has violated our trust repeatedly,” said Mary Putnam, an information architect for Design Your Site. “So how do you think you’re going to change that, honestly? We might like you, we might start believing you — but we’re just in Tulsa.”

Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact, didn’t have a call-to-arms answer on how PolitiFact is going to solve the lag in media trust, which hit a historic low leading up to the 2016 election. But he did explain to the group that PolitiFact never uses off-the-record sources and always lists a bibliography so that readers can make their own conclusions about fact checks — regardless of how the organization labeled the claim in question.

“In reality, I think, for us, we’re never going to solve (declining trust in media),” he said. “You can color us as genuine in that we’re trying to think of everything we can do to try to be more trustworthy, so if you have good ideas, I want to hear them.”

That spirit of collaboration extended to other parts of the meeting. Sharockman told the group that his team will be fact-checking Oklahoma politicians over the next six months in order to experiment with local coverage in underserved areas — and it’s not just fellow journalists they want to hear from.

“The reason we’re here is that we are asking for your help,” he said. “We want to know when you hear something you think is wrong … use us for that. The reality is we want to correct the record so people can make better decisions.”

But it wasn’t all good-natured ideological ruminations and explanations of the fact-checking process. The Tulsa GOP was direct in its criticism of PolitiFact, saying some of its main problems with the organization are how it seems to go after Republican politicians like Marco Rubio and to use context to attack claims that are objectively true — a critique conservative commentator Charlie Sykes reiterated to Poynter on Tuesday.

At one point, Putnam asked if everyone who works for PolitiFact are Democrats, which was met with little response. Another issue brought up was the lack of ideological diversity in the press — both in the newsroom and in coverage.

“I don’t know where the national broadcasters get the people in overalls with no teeth and no shirt to talk every time they want an Oklahoman to speak,” Arnett said. “In this day and age, with passions so high, is it possible anymore to do the journalism thing of being nonpartisan?”

Critiques and responses were well-taken on both sides during the meeting. While Charity Marcus, a local communications professional and entrepreneur, noted that some political statements have nuanced levels of veracity that change based on what words are used, Sharockman conceded that PolitiFact could do a better job of explaining to the public how their fact-checking process works. Arnett even said he thinks PolitiFact’s fact-checking process is superior to most other news organizations.

“I’ve got more hope sitting around and talking to you at this time, at this meeting, than I’ve had on media in a long time,” Arnett said.

And, amid the contention, there were moments of levity. Arnett cracked a joke about how managing candidates is like herding squirrels, not cats — “they’re quicker, less likely to get close to you, will obsess over a buried nut occasionally and, if they’re caught by the tail, they’ll lose the tail to get away.”

Several people related to the fact that neither local activism nor journalism are exactly lucrative industries to be in.

It was a cathartic two hours in Oklahoma. Discussions like the one PolitiFact had at the Tulsa GOP are hard — in fact, they’re pretty agonizing when you consider the current state of media trust and partisan division in the U.S. But PolitiFact is having them in an area where it counts — and it may pay off just yet.

“I’m optimistic. I thought it was a good meeting,” Arnett told Poynter on Wednesday morning. “I thought that if more journalism organizations approached the issue like this, we’d have better journalism in America, certainly.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said Mary Putnam was an information assistant for Design Your Site. She's actually an information architect. Additionally, a previous version said PolitiFact met "fact-to-face" with the Tulsa GOP. That should've said "face-to-face." *facepalm*

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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