During the 2016 presidential election, popular conservative websites were far more likely to criticize fact-checking organizations than their liberal counterparts, according to a new analysis of 10 U.S. partisan publications.
The analysis, conducted by the Duke Reporters' Lab, logged 792 statements mentioning fact-checkers and categorized them as positive, negative or neutral. While a majority of citations (68 percent) were neutral, there was a dramatic divide in the source of negative comments.
All told, critics lobbed 71 accusations of bias against fact-checkers. Conservative websites were responsible for 97 percent of them.
The liberal sites analyzed were HuffPost, Daily Kos, Occupy Democrats, Talking Points Memo and Media Matters; the conservative ones were Breitbart, Daily Caller, Newsmax, National Review Online and Media Research Center.
Some of the attacks were particularly colorful. Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online noted that Hillary Clinton's record with the truth was far from spotless and chose to reinforce his point by referring to her track record on PolitiFact, a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. The result was anything but an endorsement for fact-checkers.
Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.
Signs of a partisan divide in the reception of fact-checking bubbled up over the course of the 2016 campaign.
In one YouGov poll, Hillary Clinton voters reported far higher levels of trust in fact-checkers than Donald Trump voters. This was a far bigger differential than the one detected in a 2014 poll. Trump voters were also less keen on moderators fact-checking the candidates during the debates than Clinton voters, though not overwhelmingly so.
Could Donald Trump, whose election spawned a myriad of lefty takes about a "post-truth" era, have also exacerbated the partisan divide over fact-checking? After all, he did call fact-checkers "crooked as hell" and "scum". Conversely, a flurry of negative ratings from fact-checkers were politically convenient material for liberal publications to recirculate in an effort to cast Trump in a negative light.
Bill Adair, the former PolitiFact editor who oversees the Duke Reporters' Lab, doesn't think findings would have been dramatically different without Trump.
"Although 2016 was unique because of Trump’s extraordinary number of falsehoods," Adair said, "I think we would see this same pattern if we looked at earlier years."
Conservative pundits have long been critical of fact-checking. At the same time, perhaps the most high-profile assault on a U.S. fact-checking organization came in 2012 from Rachel Maddow, hardly a right-wing darling.
Fact-checkers have at times pointed to partisan attacks coming from all sides as evidence of their political independence. It is also worth noting that, from Dick Cheney in 2004 to Trump himself in 2016, conservative politicians have favorably cited fact-checkers' conclusions during high-stakes debates.
Yet there is no escaping the conclusions of the Duke Reporters' Lab analysis.
"I think the partisan divide is a serious problem for U.S. fact-checkers and for the nation’s political discourse," said Adair. "We can’t have a healthy discussion about issues and candidates if the two sides are so polarized they can’t agree on facts."
Bridging this divide will require an intervention from fact-checkers and conservative media critics alike.
Fact-checkers will need to look at what motivates conservative distrust and systemically track how readers on both sides react to conclusions that go against their party affiliation. Rigorous research should go beyond simple tallies and develop metrics that can help detect and evaluate bias in fact-checking. Conservative media critics may want to consider whether calling fact-checkers prostitutes risks further undermining the capacity of building a public discourse on shared facts.