BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is the interim host of This Week, ABC’s Sunday morning public affairs show. When he heard about the idea, he decided to embrace it, so, at the beginning of last month, This Week partnered with Politifact, a fact checking organization funded by The St. Petersburg Times, to check the guests’ statements after each show and then post them online during the week. For example, Politifact looked at a statement Bill Maher made criticizing America for not switching to cleaner energy.
BILL MAHER: I mean, Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years. We certainly could have.
BOB GARFIELD: Politifact slapped Maher’s statement with a label of “false” because Brazil, it turns out, is seventh in the world in oil consumption. Another example, President of BP America, Lamar McKay, was asked about a letter his company sent to a government agency before the Gulf disaster, a letter arguing that no additional safety regulations were necessary. BP’s McKay said, no, the letter:
LAMAR McKAY: Actually recommends improvements and specific recommendations around safety regulations, so we're not, we’re not fighting anything about safety.
BOB GARFIELD: Tapper says he knew that wasn't right, but depended on Politifact to give it a barely-true rating after the show.
JAKE TAPPER: I wasn't about to spend five, ten, twenty minutes, especially ‘cause I think at that point in the interview I only had about two minutes left, disputing this when it was just a he-said/he-said at that point. I said this, he disputed it. We actually had a referee come in later. It’s a great way to enhance a viewer’s understanding of these issues and also for somebody to actually – I don't want to compare what we're doing [LAUGHS] to The Marriage Ref, but to have a winner.
[BOB LAUGHS] Somebody is actually correct and somebody is actually incorrect.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I don't know about you but I kind of lay awake at night imagining some sort of fact-checking machine that tells me, in real time, whether someone has just handed me a line of baloney.
JAKE TAPPER: The best possible world would be if on live television you could have a situation like on the old VH1 show, Pop-Up Video –
[BOB LAUGHS] - Senator Smith comes out and says, Elena Kagan did this. And all of a sudden, boop, you know, you see this visual on the screen saying, Elena Kagan never did that, that’s false. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. It can't be instantaneous. Now, my job as the host is to push back and challenge if somebody says something that’s not correct. Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, came on This Week on Sunday and he had said that Abdul Mutallab, the failed Christmas Day Detroit bomber, was mirandized after 20 minutes. And I said -
JAKE TAPPER: My understanding is that actually after about 50 minutes they had to take him to get medical care, and that’s why he stopped talking then, because they – he - actually his life was in, in danger –
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
JAKE TAPPER: That’s about as close as you can get to a fact check on live television, I think. But fact checking, actually, is a lot more difficult than people think it is. People think that it’s often just these simple matters of Senator Smith said that day is night and, obviously, day is day. It’s often a lot more confusing and a lot more complex than that.
BOB GARFIELD: As you say, one of the complications of fact-checking politicians is that the way politicians lie is, is frequently with nominal facts. They're just simply taken out of context in such a way as to be entirely misleading. How’s Politifact handling that sort of structural problem?
JAKE TAPPER: Well, one of the great things about Politifact is that they understand that it’s not just true or false. They have standards of true, mostly true, half-true, barely true, false, pants-on-fire lie. Lamar McKay, the, the president of BP America, they rated his comment about that letter barely true, meaning it was spin, although there was a kernel of truth in the spin, but still essentially not true.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] In order for this to have a kind of chilling effect on liars, people have to actually see the assertion made on your show and then go, sometime later in the week, to the website. Do you have any idea what kind of traffic you're getting at the website a couple of days after the broadcast?
JAKE TAPPER: I don't. And I will be looking into it. We've only been doing it for about four weeks. People need to know about it and learn about it. Whatever the numbers are, they will probably be significantly less than the viewership of the show. That doesn't mean that what we put there is any less important. It just means that it’s generally for slightly more engaged viewers.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, for the chilling effect to work, I, I guess you don't need a gigantic audience. None of the Sunday public affairs shows have large audiences. I guess it only matters that if someone were to be caught telling a whopper, he or she would know that it would be trotted out in the next campaign and used against him or her.
JAKE TAPPER: I think it was Winston Churchill that said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. And that – that was in the days before internet, before cable. I don't think that there’s any chance that something like Politifact, which has existed for years, or FactCheck.org, is going to stamp out lying, but I do think this is an effort to create more accountability for the public officials that come on our show. And, most importantly, Bob, this is for the people who are frustrated with turning on these shows and hearing lies and not hearing the hosts of the show, the anchors, the reporters, stand up for the truth. It’s a step in the right direction, and we can keep building on it. Maybe someday that pop-up video technology will be available and we can whoop - and call them out.
BOB GARFIELD: So if someone comes onto the show and makes the Lie-a-Tron go off like you’re shoplifting a leather jacket from the mall will they not be invited back?
JAKE TAPPER: That’s a great question. There are lots of different kinds of lies in politics. We'd have to discern the intent, how much the person meant to kill the truth. But it also depends on the level of – I mean, there have been presidents who have been famous liars. Does that mean that we wouldn't have them on the show?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about Dick Cheney, for example. You know, he continues to talk about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and - as if he was just utterly oblivious to the fact that that has been long since disproven. So, you know, what do you do with a character like this who continues to trot out the same canards?
JAKE TAPPER: Without specifically getting into any one guest, let me just say politicians who don't want to be challenged tend to find interviewers who are willing to provide that forum for them. I think it’s fair to say that somebody who is a big liar probably wouldn't be comfortable with me interviewing them.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake, once again, thanks very much.
JAKE TAPPER: My pleasure, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is the interim host for ABC’s This Week.