Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Madhulika Sikka, public editor at PBS.
As part of its ongoing efforts to reach out to skeptical readers, PolitiFact announced today that it was adding two unorthodox bylines to its website. But one of them got the axe before the project took off.
The fact-checking organization, a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, published a now-deleted press release saying former Florida Congressmen David Jolly and Alan Grayson would be contributing to the website by critiquing fact-checkers’ work and providing insight on issues voters might care about.
“For the past year, we’ve committed ourselves to a series of experiments to try and improve trust and credibility in fact-checking,” PolitiFact executive director Aaron Sharockman wrote in the announcement. “Alan and David will be free to critique any of our fact-checks starting today, and we won’t restrict what they have to say. We’ll promote their work right alongside ours.”
Grayson, however, was taken off the project only hours after its announcement.
In a tweeted statement published a little after 3 p.m., Sharockman said PolitiFact had rescinded its offer to the former Florida representative amid growing backlash from journalists to his inclusion. Jolly, another former Florida representative, will stay on the project.
"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," he said. "It has become clear our choice of Alan Grayson did not meet that threshold to many."
Tweeters responded mostly negatively to PolitiFact’s initial announcement, pointing out that Grayson — who served in Congress from 2009-2011 and again from 2013-2017 — was accused of domestic abuse in 2016. He then appears to have pushed the Politico reporter who published the story.
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) February 1, 2018
Initially, Sharockman said in a statement that while PolitiFact was aware of Grayson’s past behavior and didn’t condone it, it should have no bearing on the job at hand.
“I do think what's getting lost is what we're actually trying to do,” he said. “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.”
Grayson, who has several false or misleading ratings on the Truth-O-Meter, told Poynter that PolitiFact called him a little after 2 p.m. to cancel their agreement because of Grayson’s status as a political candidate. He said they didn’t address the backlash to his announcement.
“We discussed my potential campaign for Congress. I thought they were well aware of it but apparently they were not,” he said. “They questioned whether someone who was a potential candidate for Congress should win that role and that’s what we discussed.”
According to a Federal Election Commission filing, Grayson filed his candidacy for Florida’s 11th district representative in November 2016, which he downplayed at the time but confirmed to Poynter today.
“I was concerned about his candidate status and his fundraising, and a conversation with him about that didn't remedy those concerns,” Sharockman told Poynter. “But it also became clear to me that he would not be effective in helping us improve trust and credibility in fact-checking. Given that was the whole point of this position, I decided it best we go our separate ways.”
Sharockman said in the tweeted statement that PolitiFact is continuing the project and looking for a Democrat to replace Grayson. It’s the first time in the organization’s history that non-PolitiFact writers will contribute to the site.
According to the original announcement, there are two caveats to the arrangement, which is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (which also funds Poynter). First, if either reader representatives run for office, they will no longer be able to participate. Second, when they appear on TV, the reps will still be fact-checked.
In an interview with Poynter prior to Grayson’s termination, Jolly, who served in Congress from 2014-2017, said that he looks forward to helping PolitiFact build more credibility among readers.
“I think it’s important, particularly right now, that we always have a close examination of facts and the truth — and that’s what’s going to create some controversies,” he said. “What I look forward to in this exercise is a kind of acceptance and promotion of some basic facts.”
But not everyone is sold on the idea.
"It's not clear to me why politicians, or ex-politicians, qualify as 'reader advocates,'" Jay Rosen, an associate professor in the New York University journalism department, told Poynter in an email. "I understand how going that route makes it easy to pick one from column A and one from Column B, and thus avoid criticism for being one-sided. But beyond that easy symmetry I don't see the advantage."
And Madhulika Sikka, public editor at PBS, agreed.
"I can't see how the addition of two former Congresspeople adds to the important work PolitiFact is already doing," she told Poynter in an email. "Political coverage is already dominated by 'two sides-ism' and dealing with just the facts, without filters to interpret them, is what has made PolitiFact so distinctive."
The theory behind adding two opposing reader advocates stems from PolitiFact’s efforts to reach out to more readers in recent months. In the fall, the organization traveled to three cities in right-leaning states to host forums and reach out to locals. Those efforts, on which Poynter has extensively reported, seemed to gain traction, but their effect remains to be seen.
Sharockman said that he expects the reader reps to weigh in on about a dozen fact checks between now and April. If the project doesn’t pan out, or if it isn’t useful, he said they’d cancel it altogether.
“Our hypothesis is that having a Republican or Democrat validate our reporting or (add) additional context to it may help convince some additional people to trust our fact-checking reports,” he said. “If it has the opposite effect, we'll stop.”