Who’s Behind PolitiFact?

Political bias, financial conflicts, and a surprising intelligence agency legacy

Originally published by The Kennedy Beacon

In late December of last year, the infamous “fact-checking” service PolitiFact announced that it had chosen Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to receive its “2023 Lie of the Year” award. 

But rather than select their favorite single alleged falsehood uttered by Kennedy, PolitiFact points to what it broadly describes as his “campaign of conspiracy theories.” The article mentions numerous topics with which Kennedy has engaged, including vaccine safety and efficacy; autism; the role of psychiatric drugs in mass shootings; the suppression of off-label COVID-19 treatments in favor of an experimental genetic vaccine; the role of endocrine disruptors in gender dysphoria; the artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2; the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the murder of his father and uncle; and the integrity of the 2004 presidential election.

Kennedy’s positions on these issues are far from unfounded; his best-selling books, for example, The Real Anthony Fauci and The Wuhan Cover-Up, include more than 2,000 and 3,000 references, respectively, with Vax-Unvax and A Letter to Liberals adding over 1,000 more. But as noted by Kyle Hence in an op-ed for Honest Media, PolitiFact “failed to directly review or rebut even a single well-sourced claim in Mr. Kennedy’s library of self-authored books.” Despite appearances, not a single fact was truly checked. 

[Note: Honest Media and The Kennedy Beacon are funded by American Values 2024, the super PAC supporting RFK Jr. for president.]

Instead of serving as a fact-based criticism of Kennedy and his positions, the grandiose award announcement instead serves as a thinly veiled hit piece, through which PolitiFact’s political and financial conflicts of interest have perhaps never been more apparent.

Poynter Institute and Funding

PolitiFact is a project of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s not the only such project under Poynter’s purview; the institute also houses the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and MediaWise, each with a slightly different scope of contribution to the dark art of “fact-checking.” 

While PolitiFact receives “administrative support” from Poynter, it is otherwise sustained by advertising revenue and “compensation for selling its content to media publishers and companies.” Its largest funders in 2022 were Facebook and TikTok – the latter of which is frequently described by US federal law enforcement agencies as being a tool of propaganda for the Chinese government, as summarized by The Guardian

Facebook’s track record is no better, with an established history of psychological manipulation and espionage of its users. 

In recent years, PolitiFact has received significant funding from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark through Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Craigconnects, and the Craigslist Charitable Fund; YouTube and its parent, Google; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Ford Foundation; Microsoft; and the Knight Foundation. These are familiar names in the world of philanthrocapitalism which frequently fund the defense of corporate interests under the guise of combating “misinformation.”

Rebranding Propaganda

PolitiFact was founded by Bill Adair in 2007 as a partnership between the St. Petersburg Times (renamed to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012and Congressional Quarterly, both subsidiaries of the Poynter Institute. PolitiFact’s original mandate was to “help voters separate fact from falsehood” during the forthcoming 2008 presidential election, according to an early archive of its website. As of 2010, the site claimed to “fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups,” while providing each statement a rating on its “Truth-O-Meter.”

The key premise underlying an independent fact-checking service is its ability to analyze information and parse out facts from political fiction. PolitiFact’s independence, however, has frequently been called into question based on its apparent partisan behavior. In June 2021, AllSides, a website that analyzes news sources for political bias, rated PolitiFact as “Lean Left.” AllSides explained that “often, fact check outlets will interpret information for the reader, drawing a conclusion rather than just giving the facts and allowing the reader to decide the meaning for themselves.” In the case of PolitiFact, AllSides found that the service has frequently reinterpreted statements from Democrat politicians like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in order to make them appear more favorable; Republican politicians, on the other hand, have often been misrepresented in a negative light.

This apparent bias toward institutional liberal politics isn’t new, and can be easily attributed to the influence of its owner, the Poynter Institute. The latter’s namesake, Nelson Poynter, worked during World War II for the Foreign Information Service (FIS), described by senior National Archives archivist Greg Bradsher as “a press, radio, motion picture, and general propaganda organization.” William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the FIS, soon became founding director of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. According to the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, Poynter participated in the creation of Voice of America, for which he coined the first unofficial mission statement: to “sell the religion of democracy.”

According to Gavin Ellis in his 2014 book, Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights, Poynter was a distinctly liberal journalist as publisher of the St. Petersburg Times. He “supported Democrat presidential candidates” in Florida, and his “leftist” stance “led to accusations that he was a member of a communist front.” For better or worse, Poynter “often took editorial stands that were unpopular with conservative elements.” He established the Poynter Fund in 1953 to provide scholarships in journalism, kicking off a new era of training journalists in his particular brand of liberal journalism. In 1972, the fund gave $500,000 to Indiana University “for a project aimed at bridging the credibility gap between the citizenry and the institutions of American democracy on all levels”—strikingly similar in premise to the “fact-checkers” that would later form under his roof.

Poynter then founded the Modern Media Institute in 1975, renaming it the Poynter Institute in 1984. From its inception to today, the institute’s funders have reflected these same pro-liberal, anti-conservative worldviews. Poynter’s “Major Funders” page discloses “significant funding” from some of the country’s richest and most influential families. The list includes oil tycoon Charles Koch through his foundation and institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Knight Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. It also reveals funding from corporations including Google, Meta, TikTok, Microsoft, and WhatsApp, along with The Washington PostNPRNBC News, and Newsweek. Notably, Poynter is paid by multiple US government agencies, including the United States Agency for Global Media’s Voice of America and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). As explained in 2010 by ProPublica editor Paul E. Steiger, NED has frequently been accused of carrying out covert operations on behalf of the CIA. 

Bill Adair’s Future of Information

PolitiFact’s founder, Bill Adair, worked for over 20 years at the St. Petersburg Times, becoming its Washington bureau chief in 2004. He later became the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University and taught numerous classes at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, according to his staff biography. After founding PolitiFact in 2007, he continued to contribute as an editor until 2013.

Adair has done his own innovating in the field of fact-checking, leading programs like the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and its North Carolina Fact-Checking Project. Like Poynter, his political ideology is a clear motivator behind his work, funded by corporate liberal interests such as Democratic super-donor Craig Newmark, Facebook, Google, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund, to name a few. Once again, the “nonpartisan” nature of these fact-checking initiatives is severely called into question by the nature of their backers. 

In an article published in December 2023, Adair advocated for fact-checkers to “be more assertive in getting truthful information to the audience that needs it.” He suggests they accomplish this by getting “tech companies and social media platforms to expand the use of fact-checking data to suppress misinformation,” such as Google’s practice of pushing approved fact-check articles to the top of search results for controversial topics. He goes so far as to offer his own proprietary systems for “fact-checks of videos and images,” which “can be used more widely to suppress inaccurate content.”

As Adair cautions, 2024 will be a year when fact-checkers are challenged more than ever before. So, too, are Americans challenged to reclaim ownership over their own thoughts, opinions, and expression. Despite claims that PolitiFact and similar fact-checking services are unbiased and champions of truth, their purpose is arguably more like a blunt instrument in information warfare. 

As is on full display with PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year Award, these outlets are increasingly used to libel and smear the ideological opponents of their funders in service of a preferred political narrative – at the expense of a healthy and robust information ecosystem.