Beyond the Bubble

How PolitiFact journalists won over media-critic Elon Musk

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WASHINGTON — Despite a recent anti-media Twitter rant, SpaceX and Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has found a journalism venture he's on board with: PolitiFact.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning website takes heat from both sides of the aisle for its truth-rating system, which grades the accuracy politicians' claims on a scale of "truth" to "pants-on-fire."

And Musk, who recently floated plans to start his own accountability journalism venture, is no fan of media organizations, who he says the public "no longer respects."

But in the midst of Musk's brutal media condemnation this month, the Twitterverse directed him to PolitiFact — which is already doing some of the work Musk says he wants to engineer.

"At one point he tweeted something like, 'I wish there was some sort of accountability site that could rate things as being accurate or not,' and it sort of caught our eyes... we thought well, that’s kind of what we do," senior PolitiFact correspondent Louis Jacobson told McClatchy’s Beyond the Bubble podcast Tuesday.

(Check out last week’s BtB episode: #Resistance leaders threaten Democrats who help Trump)

"We started seeing all these replies in our mentions column on Twitter… we decided hey, why don’t we Tweet at him?" said Jacobson.

Musk responded on Twitter, where he has nearly 22 million followers, commending PolitiFact's work. He also made a donation— becoming a member of PolitiFact's Truth Squad.

"I don’t know how much it is... certainly not in the billions though," said Jacobson, who joined BtB to break down some of May's biggest political whoppers.

This month PolitiFact dug into an exaggerated claim about Washington's work to fund school safety measures — repeated by both Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Donald Trump. They also picked apart a Democratic campaign ad running in Florida — where PolitiFact was born.

Musk, known for industry disruption, wants to turn the fact-checking lens toward journalists and media organizations.

He took to Twitter bemoaning the coverage of Tesla crashes, and suggested individual reporters and news organizations should be graded based on public opinion.

"We don’t rate the media, per say," said Jacobson, whose organization is comprised of journalists, and hatched out of a newsroom at the Tampa Bay Times.

PolitiFact details its fact-checking process on its website — a more transparent approach to reporting procedures than most news organizations. It also lists its major donors by name, as well as details about other funding sources.

But Jacobson, who has served as both a reporter and editor, for the Tampa Bay Times, Roll Call and National Journal Magazine, said Musk's quest to apply science to journalism may still be an empty space in the market.

"We choose items to check based on how interesting they are," said Jacobson. "Doing comparisons of like how truthful somebody is compared to somebody else, or is or one party is compared to the other... it’s not a random sample that’s scientifically valid."

McClatchy’s Beyond the Bubble show is produced by Jordan Marie-Smith and Davin Coburn. Alex Roarty, a national political correspondent for McClatchy, and Andrea Drusch, Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recorded this episode at McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, May 29, 2018.