When former Texas Governor and likely presidential candidate Rick Perry states in a speech that the cost of government regulation “hits American families for $15,000 a year,” how should you assess the claim’s validity? With the increasing polarization of the media, nonprofit watchdogs that are trying to raise the level of political debate are becoming more important. One such group is FactCheck.org. A newer effort is the Fact-Checking Project at American Press Institute.
Both groups are attracting donations from a handful of funders worried about media objectivity and impartial debate. Fact-checking is hot these days, to the extent that the Poynter Institute convened the first-ever global conference of fact checkers last year, during which these truth-seeking souls voted to create a new international organization and set out to find funding for this effort.
Still, the funding going to fact checking tends to be modest—despite all the new money coming into nonprofit journalism these days and the frequency with which American public life is submerged in a gutter of lies.
FactCheck.org is doing reasonably well in attracting support. Its stated mission is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.” The site does so by applying the best techniques of journalism and scholarship. It's run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Recognizing how money behind an agenda can taint coverage, FactCheck.org says, “We do not seek and have never accepted, directly or indirectly, any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.”
So who does back an organization like this?
Well, just as you would hope, FactCheck.org is totally transparent about its funding sources—going so far as to list a detailed breakdown of financial support by every quarter, the same standard expected of political campaigns and party committees.
Boy, if only other nonprofits took this approach. In fact, though, most nonprofits are maddeningly opaque about their funding sources. Even when they do disclose the names of their donors, they rarely disclose exact amounts or provide this information in a timely fashion. So, quite apart from its stated mission, FactCheck.org is making a contribution by exemplifying nonprofit transparency.
The organization's biggest funder is the Annenberg Foundation, which has given over a million dollars to FactCheck.org in the past two years. We can't resist pointing out the irony here: Walter Annenberg, the newspaper magnate behind this fortune, was not above using his publications to slant the news to advance an agenda.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has also given funding lately to FactCheck.org, and so has the Stanton Foundation, which was founded by Frank Stanton, the former president of CBS News.
Since 2010, FactCheck.org has accepted donations from the public, and has done pretty well with individual donors. It also discloses the names of any person who has donated more than $1,000 which, again, is not something we see every day.
The Fact-Checking Project at the American Press Institute works with news outlets to improve their fact-checking practices and conducts research on fact checking, among other activities. The effort began in early 2014 with a $400,000 grant from Pierre Omidyar's Democracy Fund. Later in the year, it attracted $200,000 in support from the Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation.
Hewlett is interested in fact checking as part of its Madison Initiative, which aims to reduce political polarization. Working to improve media is part of Hewlett's strategy. One of the Rita Allen Foundation's main goals is to raise the level of "civic literacy."