Accusations of media bias are nothing new in political journalism. But those charges are particularly fraught for fact-checkers, whose roles require them to make factual determinations about the content of partisan statements.
Critics dedicate themselves to continuously mocking the contention that fact-checkers’ work is fair and unbiased. But rarely do these discussions get as openly hostile as they did in 2012 between the Republican Party of Virginia and that state’s PolitiFact team at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The Times-Dispatch joined forces with the Tampa Bay Times’ national fact-checking service in October 2010. By 2012, state Republicans had become so frustrated with PolitiFact Virginia’s coverage that they issued a highly critical 87-page report documenting their concerns about the site’s biased treatment of the party and its supporters. The report began as “an open letter to the commonwealth” that accused the site of “showering… Republican politicians with suspiciously negative determinations” and using “highly subjective analysis and even opinion masquerading as ‘fact checks.'”[ref Republican Party of Virginia, “To the Commonwealth of Virginia: A Comprehensive Analysis of PolitiFact Virginia’s Questionable Objectivity,” July 10, 2012]
The effort to discredit the fact-checkers would intensify a month later, when a conservative Virginia political website published a story about PolitiFact Virginia’s editor and his record of voting in Democratic primaries. But all of this had begun to bubble over publicly even earlier — a month after Virginia’s June 2012 primary, in which former Republican Sen. George Allen had won a four-way race for his party’s nomination to run for his old seat. Party leaders said they had tried complaining privately about PolitiFact’s coverage of state Republicans in a February meeting with the Times-Dispatch’s publisher and editor and in a follow-up phone call in April. Their main concerns were the “lopsidedly disproportionate PolitiFact examination” of the party’s candidates, elected officials and supporters, as their report later put it.
Republican leaders were frustrated with a tally of PolitiFact conclusions they said tilted against them and complained about a sliding scale when asked to back up their claims. The party’s July report reviewed the number of calls and ratings applied to Republicans versus Democrats and then included lengthy critiques of particular fact checks and the reporters’ reasoning.
Editor Warren Fiske responded with a post on PolitiFact Virginia and again in a lengthier message that ran in the Times-Dispatch a few days later.
He argued that the number of fact checks focused on Republicans during the first half of 2012 was a reflection of that year’s four-way fight for the party’s Senate nomination, in contrast to former Gov. Tim Kaine’s uncontested bid to be the Democratic candidate. It was “no surprise that during the first half of the year, we spent most of our time rating Republican statements,” Fiske wrote. “We follow the action.”
Fiske reviewed the 205 calls his team had made since the site launched in 2010 and found that the average grade was roughly the same for Democrats and Republicans alike. But he also noted that “Virginia is largely controlled by Republican politicians. The governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general belong to the party, as do eight of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both houses of the General Assembly are run by Republicans.”[ref Warren Fiske, “PolitiFact Virginia responds to the state GOP,” PolitiFact Virginia, July 10, 2012]
Little of that added up for the party leaders, since the state also had two Democratic senators. Nor did the response address another issue the Republicans had raised with the newspaper’s leaders — namely their concern that Fiske in particular was politically biased. While they did not address their issues with Fiske directly or publicly in their report, a senior Republican said they believed that the editor had been “co-opted into part of the Kaine campaign” and that the “subjective value judgments” he applied to his reporting made him fair game.
“You’re bringing yourself into the fray,” the senior Republican said. “If they’re on the field and they’ve got pads on, you’ve got to tackle them.”
The tackle came almost exactly a month after the state party’s report in the form of a story by the Washington Free Beacon. The conservative website reported that it obtained voting documents that showed Fiske “has a history of tilting left.”[ref Bill McMorris, “Fisking Fiske’s Record,” Washington Free Beacon, Aug. 7, 2012] The Beacon did not say more about how it obtained the editor’s voting records, though such records are not hard to come by and are widely used in politics to direct phone calls, mailings and door-to-door canvassing. However, a senior state Republican said the state party had not shared any voting data with the Beacon.
A complicating factor about Virginia’s records is that no party registration is given. That means voters can cast ballots in either party’s primaries in any given election year, and primary participation is sometimes read as a proxy for party ID. The voting records the Beacon obtained showed that Fiske had voted in the Democratic primary “in all but one of the last 6 major election cycles” and in the Republican primary only in a year when the Democrat gubernatorial nominee ran unopposed.
The Beacon item was picked up by conservative bloggers across the state and trumpeted as evidence of the editor’s bias. This time, Fiske did not comment publicly. But his boss, Times-Dispatch editor Danny Finnegan, defended him in lengthy comments on the Beacon post and several other state political blogs that picked up the story.
Finnegan said Fiske had not voted in a party primary since becoming PolitiFact editor and noted that Republicans had held few primaries during the period for which voting records were available in the county where Fiske lived. He quoted from the newspaper’s professional conduct guidelines, which encouraged staff to vote, but prohibited being “active in politics” — for instance, “donating money or advice to political campaigns, not wearing political buttons, and not displaying campaign signs or bumper stickers.”
“So we don’t believe [Fiske’s] voting record indicates a bias,” Finnegan wrote. “We are also frustrated by the Republican Party’s attack on Warren and their attempts to discredit our work, which came after we spent hours listening to its complaints and responding to them.”[ref A version of Finnegan’s response was posted as an update at the end of the Beacon story: Bill McMorris, “Fisking Fiske’s Record,” Washington Free Beacon, Aug. 7, 2012]
Virginia’s fact-checkers weren’t alone in the spotlight. Around the same time as the public spat there, a different conservative site called Media Trackers began posting stories that listed the party registration of the journalists who wrote for the PolitiFact affiliate operated by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio. Media Trackers, a frequent PolitiFact critic, counted 12 registered Democrats and three registered Republicans among the Ohio site’s staff and contributors based on voting records it obtained from the LexisNexis commercial data and research service.[ref Jason Hart, “Liberal ‘Fact Checker’ Crushes PolitiFact Ohio’s Credibility,” Media Trackers, Aug. 16, 2012; Jason Hart, “At PolitiFact Ohio, Democrats Outnumber Republicans 4 to 1,” Media Trackers, Sept. 24, 2012]
“I do recall them making a run at us,” said Chris Quinn, who was the Plain Dealer’s assistant managing editor for news at the time. “We pretty much ignored them. Getting attacked by partisans is not that unusual anymore, so we take it in stride.”
As in Virginia, conservative bloggers across the state recirculated the Media Trackers’ reports. But while confrontations like these often rally partisans on one side or the other, they typically seem to end in draw.
In Ohio, the newspaper’s PolitiFact partnership ended in late 2013. But Quinn, who is now vice president of content at Northeast Ohio Media Group, the Plain Dealer’s digitally focused sister company, said that was a business decision and the news operation there still does fact-checking.
As for Virginia, Warren Fiske is still editor of the Times-Dispatch’s PolitiFact team and he said he was grateful for the backing from his boss and his colleagues. “I had a lot of support in the newsroom,” he said.
Virginia Republicans had no regrets about having taken their fight with the Times-Dispatch public. “We couldn’t make it any worse,” a senior Republican said. “They were already hammering on us…. What are they going to do — write more bad things about us?”