In recent months a growing chorus of commentators has begun to dismantle the notion that the current polarization of American politics is equally the fault of “both sides.” Most notably, two old Washington hands and collaborators, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, have directly blamed the Republican Party’s ideological extremism for our predicament. And they exhort journalists to stop splitting the difference between the two parties and to start telling the truth about which one is really driving the polarization and refusing to compromise.
Political ideologues don’t merely fail to compromise, however; they also concoct their own reality. Mann’s and Ornstein’s recommendations, accordingly, can be extended to the realm of reporting on fact itself—e.g., to the media watchdogs who strive for evenhandedness as they fact-check the statements of politicians on both sides of the aisle.
After all, we live at a time when Republican “Big Lies”—ranging from the denial of global warming, to claims about “death panels” (PolitiFact’s 2009 “Lie of the Year”) and a “government takeover of healthcare” (the 2010 “Lie of the Year”), to the assertion that President Obama goes around “apologizing” for America—are everywhere. In this context, is it not appropriate that the arbiters of political reality also take a stand?
In fact, there is reason to think that, at least in a subtle way, they already have—because the facts have forced them to.
As the influence of political fact-checking has grown, the temptation to crunch the numbers on fact-checker performance has proven irresistible. Early into the fray was the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, which analyzed the Pulitzer Prize–winning PolitiFact’s work during the period from January 2010 through January 2011, surveying more than 500 stories. Sure enough, it found that while the site fact-checked roughly as many statements by current or former Democratic elected officials as current or former Republican officeholders during this period (179 versus 191, respectively), Republicans were overwhelmingly more likely to draw a “false” or even “pants on fire” rating (the worst of all). Out of the ninety-eight politicians’ statements that received these dismal ratings, seventy-four were made by Republicans—or 76 percent. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann fared worst, with eight and seven PolitiFact slams, respectively.
The Smart Politics blog went on to suggest, based on these numbers, that PolitiFact is biased against the right—precisely the type of knee-jerk centrism that Mann and Ornstein have called into question. After all, there is another possibility: the left just might be right more often (or the right, wrong more often), and the fact-checkers simply too competent not to reflect this—at least over long periods.
So which interpretation is correct? While certainly not definitive, a study undertaken for my book The Republican Brain and updated for this article—with dedicated data-gathering and statistical analysis from an assistant, Aviva Meyer—lends additional credence to the latter possibility.
We examined the work of the Washington Post’s “Fact-Checker” column, launched by Michael Dobbs in 2007 and appearing through late 2008, then restarted in 2011 under Glenn Kessler (and now co-written by Josh Hicks). The Post bestows “Pinocchios” for false or misleading claims, with the number depending on the egregiousness of the error. Thus, getting “four Pinocchios” from the Post is comparable to a “pants on fire” from PolitiFact.