Fact Checks

PolitiFact: Pols, Pundits, and Pant Fires

This last of a three-parter compares the PolitiFact credibility of groups making political claims. The most truthful: comedians. The least: social media.

This completes the three-part series using PolitiFact truth ratings to score the credibility of politicians and pundits. Part one found voters preferred the more truthful candidate in Senate races. Part two calculated the combined accuracy of claims by presidents and their staffs.

PolitiFact has been fighting fake news since 2007. As of September 2020, they’ve checked the accuracy of 18,150 claims made by 4,217 persons and organizations. With their permission, I examined all their ratings to find who lies and who tells the truth.

PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter has six levels: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and the dreaded Pants-on-Fire!. For each PolitiFact-checked source, I calculated a score between 0 and 1 (see methodology), based on the veracity of their claims:

  • 1.00 means all the statements were True.
  • 0.00 means all the statements were False.

My analysis updates one I did for RJI in 2017. It uses only data from people and organizations with four or more fact-checks: enough to establish a truth/lie trend. The dataset (see the spreadsheet) has 709 sources with a total of 13,442 checks. The charts below compare them as individuals and in groups.

Funny because it’s true

Comedians were the most truthful group in 2017 and remain so today, with an average score of .64. (John Oliver scored .80, Stephen Colbert .75, Doonesbury .67, Bill Maher .53, and Jon Stewart .45.) Print journalists were second, averaging .58, slipping from their 2017 score of .63.

PolitiFact scores by media or political type

Media: Comedy5380.64
Media: Print101050.58
Media: TV News343290.42
Org: Union3200.42
Org: Advocacy413210.39
Org: Party294860.38
Org: PAC181370.33
Media: Talk Radio6680.15
Social Media92,2720.05
Sources are either a person or organization with 4+ checks.

The average score for all sources is also down, from .50 to .44. Democrats (.52) still lead Republicans (.4o). As a group, politicians (.47), pundits (.43), women (.47), and men (.45) were all about equally veracity challenged.

Other group averages: People (.46) were more accurate than organizations (.31). Unions (.42) beat out advocacy groups (.39), party committees (.38), and PACs (.33). TV news did okay (.42). Talk radio (.15) not so much.

So, if hearing truth is your goal: Heed comedians. Tune out talk radio. Ignore any utterance by parties, PACS, and advocacy orgs (progressive and conservative). Pay absolutely no attention to social media (.05), which scored abysmally: Tweets averaged 0.13. Facebook and Instagram posts were both .09. Viral-images, blog-postings, chain messages/emails, and YouTube videos were all below .02.

Assume. Everything. On Social Media. Is Wrong. Based on PolitiFact, it usually is.

Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.

Proverbs 12:22

Relative media mendacity

The next table lists news outlets with two or more PolitiFact-checked people. New York Times writers topped the pack with a .68 score, the average of David Brooks (.80), Paul Krugman (.70), Nicholas Kristof (.70), and Gail Collins (.53). HBO (.66) was second, with comics John Oliver (.80) and Bill Maher (.53).

PolitiFact scores of news outlets

New York Times4360.68
Weekly Standard290.56
ABC News4280.45
Fox News121190.31
Outlets with 2+ PolitiFact-checked people (4+ claims each). Score is their average.

Kudos to CNN’s Jake Tapper and NBC/MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, the highest-scoring broadcast journalists, both at 0.75. Unfortunately, Todd’s MSNBC colleagues dragged his network down into nearly last place.

Talking heads

The table below lists the PolitiFact score of 150 well-known pols and pundits, people either in the news or in the news biz whose claims have been checked 4+ times by PolitiFact (spreadsheet).

PolitiFact score of pols and pundits (150)

Mark KellyDemAZ40.81
David BrooksMedia50.80
John OliverMedia100.80
Stephen ColbertMedia50.75
Jeff FlakeGOPAZ50.75
Jay InsleeDemWA40.75
Jake TapperMedia40.75
Chuck ToddMedia70.75
Chris DoddDemCT80.72
Sheldon WhitehouseDemRI250.71
Julián CastroDemTX190.70
Amy KlobucharDemMN180.69
Paul KrugmanMedia180.69
David PlouffeDem40.69
Michelle ObamaDemIL110.68
Jim JordanGOPOH90.67
Michael BloombergDemNY240.66
Joaquin CastroDemTX80.66
Andrew CuomoDemNY350.65
Rob PortmanGOPOH480.65
Donna BrazileDem130.64
Jon OssoffDemGA40.63
Cecile RichardsAdvTX40.63
Cokie RobertsMedia60.63
Elizabeth WarrenDemMA340.63
Cory BookerDemNJ320.62
Tim KaineDemVA560.61
Mark WarnerDemVA220.61
David AxelrodDem180.60
Megyn KellyMedia50.60
Gavin NewsomDemCA210.60
Beto O’RourkeDemTX260.59
Jimmy CarterDemGA90.58
Hillary ClintonDemNY3000.58
Bill ClintonDemAR440.58
Kirsten GillibrandDemNY180.58
Al GoreDemTN60.58
Van JonesDem60.58
Roy CooperDemNC170.57
Barack ObamaDemIL6020.57
Stacey AbramsDemGA90.56
Roy BluntGOPMO140.56
George W. BushGOPTX40.56
Austan GoolsbeeDem40.56
Brian KempGOPGA80.56
Bill KristolMedia40.56
Bernie SandersIndVT1690.56
Chris WallaceMedia40.56
Pam BondiGOPFL100.55
Bill de BlasioDemNY60.54
Thomas PerezDemMD70.54
Michael SteeleGOPMD80.54
Bill MaherMedia100.53
Pete ButtigiegDemIA150.52
John KerryDemMA130.52
Andrew YangDemNY70.52
Rand PaulGOPKY600.51
George WillMedia330.51
Chris ChristieGOPNJ1020.50
Chuck GrassleyGOPIA40.50
Andrea MitchellMedia40.50
Chris MurphyDemCT90.50
Barbara BoxerDemCA100.49
Ron JohnsonGOPWI640.48
John McCainGOPAZ1840.48
Joe BidenDemDE1600.47
Dianne FeinsteinDemCA80.47
Kamala HarrisDemCA290.47
Lawrence O’DonnellMedia80.47
Greg AbbottGOPTX640.46
Tulsi GabbardDemHI70.46
Lindsey GrahamGOPSC130.46
Rachel MaddowMedia280.46
Marco RubioGOPFL1600.46
Charles SchumerDemNY210.46
Tammy DuckworthDemIL50.45
Doug JonesDemAL50.45
Claire McCaskillDemMO190.45
Mitch McConnellGOPKY330.45
Jon StewartMedia70.45
Cal CunninghamDem40.44
Ron DeSantisGOPFL170.44
Michelle MalkinMedia40.44
Michael MooreMediaMI180.44
Mitt RomneyGOPMA2060.44
Karl RoveGOPTX170.44
Joe ScarboroughMediaFL130.44
Nikki HaleyGOPSC90.43
Rick ScottGOPFL1640.43
Mike HuckabeeGOPAR410.42
Ivanka TrumpGOPNY90.42
Whoopi GoldbergMedia40.41
Nancy PelosiDemCA510.40
Dick CheneyGOPWY170.39
Rahm EmanuelDemIL130.39
Rudy GiulianiGOPNY510.39
Sean HannityMedia250.39
Wayne LaPierreAdv90.39
Bill O’ReillyMedia210.39
Sarah PalinGOPAK640.39
Mike PenceGOPLN580.37
Joni ErnstGOPIA70.36
Terry McAuliffeDemVA340.36
Thom TillisGOPNC90.36
Newt GingrichGOPGA820.35
Kayleigh McEnanyGOP40.35
Jeff SessionsGOPAL230.35
Al SharptonDemNY50.35
Rick SantorumGOPPA620.34
Howard DeanDemVT100.33
Cory GardnerGOPCO90.33
John LewisDemGA50.33
Tony EversDemWI250.32
Lori LightfootDemIL70.32
James CarvilleDemLA40.31
Ted CruzGOPTX1420.31
Joy ReidMedia40.31
Tom CottonGOPAR170.30
Matt GaetzGOPFL100.30
Eric BollingMedia70.29
Sean SpicerGOP110.29
Lou DobbsMedia60.28
Mick MulvaneyGOPSC80.28
Kevin McCarthyGOPCA110.27
Andrew NapolitanoMedia110.25
Ilhan OmarDemMN60.25
Donald TrumpGOPNY8610.22
Herman CainGOPGA260.21
Ann CoulterMedia160.20
Corey LewandowskiGOPNH50.20
Ben CarsonGOPMD300.18
Kellyanne ConwayGOP110.18
Martha McSallyGOPAZ90.18
Alexandria Ocasio-CortezDemNY90.18
Tucker CarlsonMedia100.16
Dana LoeschAdvTX40.13
Rush LimbaughMedia440.12
Sarah Huckabee SandersGOPAK60.11
Paul ManafortGOP40.10
Laura IngrahamMedia100.09
Vladimir PutinRussia40.08
Donald Trump Jr.GOPNY100.07
Brit HumeMedia40.06
Louie GohmertGOPTX130.05
Greg GutfeldMedia40.04
William BarrGOP50.03
Candace OwensGOP40.00
Jerome R. CorsiMedia4-0.03
Brian KilmeadeMedia4-0.03
Alex JonesMediaTX4-0.05
Well-known political people with 4+ checks. # column is the number of claims by each person rated by PolitiFact.

Burden of proof: People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.

Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter


The above results are from PolitiFact data gathered at the end of September 2020. I used only data for those with four or more checks (enough truth ratings to show a pattern). This subset of PolitiFact data has 709 people or organizations with a total of 13,442 rulings (public spreadsheet).

Each person’s score is calculated by assigning a number value to each rating level, listed in the table below, then averaging all their PolitiFact rulings.

PolitiFact ratings as scores
RatingPolitiFact descriptionScore
TrueThe statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.1.00
Mostly TrueThe statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.0.75
Half TrueThe statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.0.50
Mostly FalseThe statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.0.25
FalseThe statement is not accurate.0.00
Pants on FireThe statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.-0.10
The negative “Pants” number makes below-zero scores possible.

Group scores are the average of the scores of all the people in the group (not the average of all the individual rulings of the people in the group). In the tables, a “PAC” designation includes “Super PAC” 501(c)(4) organizations, though technically not PACs. “Pundits” are those in the media and listed at PunditFact.

Media people are associated with the outlet they worked at when most of their claims were checked. So Stephen Colbert is grouped with CBS (not Comedy Central) and Megyn Kelly as Fox News (though she later moved to NBC).

This same criterion applies to people with dual roles: talk radio and TV news, politician and pundit. I assigned them the role in which they made the plurality of their PolitiFact-checked statements. Because of this, for example, Joe Scarborough is listed as part of MSNBC (not as a former congressman) while David Axelrod is listed as a politician (not as his current position with CNN). “Adv” in the Group column identifies a member of an advocacy group, like the NRA or Planned Parenthood.

Finally, I chose PolitiFact because I consider their checks thorough, nonpartisan, and among the best in the business. If you want to keep politics and facts together, please support PolitiFact (a project of the nonprofit Poynter Institute) with a tax-deductible contribution or membership.

Thanks to Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding for editing, and to Aaron Sharockman for Politifact permission. The top image is from a William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, “Shall the People Rule?” (circa 1900), at the Library of Congress.