I grappled with all of these issues during my experience from 2001 to 2004 as a co-founder and co-editor of Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of manipulative political rhetoric that was syndicated in Salon and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Our work was scrupulously non-partisan and we were frequently accused, like PolitiFact and the other factcheckers, of ignoring ideological or partisan asymmetries. But we thought our readers were best served by calling out misleading statements wherever we found them rather than trying to make broad distinctions that we could not support in the context of a specific article. We took a different approach in our 2004 book All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth, which allowed us to make a more extensive and detailed non-partisan case for why we thought the Bush administration was the most frequent and effective source of misleading claims in politics at that time (though we concluded by noting how Democrats were seeking to more effectively compete in the arms race of spin).
In this case, the fault is not with the factcheckers but the media more generally, which must seek to avoid ghettoizing assessments of accuracy in factchecking sidebars and online features (Ornstein and Mann are correct on this point). Instead, we should integrate factchecking into the practice of political journalism more generally, which will allow for consideration of broader perspectives on accuracy and polarization than are possible in the factchecking format. (See, for instance, Dana Milbank’s groundbreaking and controversial October 2002 piece in The Washington Post on President Bush’s pattern of misleading statements.) When combined with continued effort to avoid false equivalence and artificial balance, journalists can hopefully account for asymmetry when it exists in a fair way that respects journalistic norms. Most encouragingly, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responded to Froomkin’s piece with a call for more integration of factchecking into Times journalism and continued movement “away from false equivalence and toward stating established truths and challenging falsehoods whenever possible.” In doing so, journalists can allow for the cases in which Mann and Ornstein’s analysis holds without destroying the value of the factchecking format.