PHILADELPHIA – Ten journalists from the Arab world visited the FactCheck.org headquarters at the University of Pennsylvania and met with the director of Penn’s Middle East Center in October as part of the U.S. State Department’s Arabic-language Election 2012 tour.
Hailing from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen -- all countries that experienced political upheaval during 2011-12 – these journalists were selected by U.S. embassy press attachés in those countries to cover the U.S. presidential election with the anticipation that they will be reporting on their own countries’ political trajectories in the future. The journalists were assisted in their questions and answers by interpreters.
At the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Deputy Managing Editor Robert Farley explained FactCheck.org’s independent, nonpartisan role in checking political speeches, campaign ads and other rhetoric for misleading comments. He also briefed them on why fact-checking organizations have developed in recent years and explained the working methodology, use of on-line public documents and monitoring over time of political promises.
“We use objective, non-partisan sources,” Farley said. “Public documents are at the heart of what we do. It’s very important that we link to all of our sources so that people can see why we made the call.”
“Do your laws allow you to set up your organization, examine and fact check?” one journalist asked. “I commend you.”
In reply, Farley said, “If I were writing in fear, it wouldn’t work. As journalists, we always want more information, more access. If I could get [President] Obama’s email account, I’d want it.”
The journalists’ questions to Farley ranged from Mitt Romney’s 47-percent comment to Wikileaks, from the birther controversy to how Obama did on his 2008 promises – half were kept, Farley said -- and whether a Muslim elected president of the United States could take the oath using a Koran?
The group also had many questions about how FactCheck has built trust and credibility among its readers and how it is funded.
“People with strong views call us out when we challenge their candidates, but a lot of independent folks respect what we do,” Farley said.
The journalists heard from one of the world’s leading Middle East scholars, Penn history professor Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, later that afternoon in the McNeil Building.
Kashani-Sabet, who directs Penn’s Middle East Center, spoke to them in English, a little Arabic and some French, delivering a history on revolutions and constitutionalism in the Middle East and on the lens through which Americans view revolutionary movements in other countries.
Kashani-Sabet talked to the journalists about whether the Arab Spring revolutions will follow the same trajectory as the Iranian revolution of 1979, which Kashani-Sabet lived through as a child. In rapid-fire succession, nearly all the journalists engaged her in dialogue about politics in their home countries.
Kashani-Sabet noted that people in the Arab world have lost a culture that existed at the last turn of century when political and intellectual questions were openly discussed and there was tolerance of differences of opinion.
As the session ended, she commended the group: “You have more power than you know,” telling the journalists that they have the ability to encourage debate among people in their countries through the articles and stories they write.