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Booing the Fact-Checkers: How Low Trust in Media Is Shaping 2016

The people Americans distrust the most aren’t the candidates — it’s the fact-checkers.

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this you don’t believe it.

It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for truth-telling in the 2016 election, with flubs, rumors, misleading stats and flat-out falsehoods uttered on the campaign trail and ping-ponged around the social media universe with regularity. But in many cases, furious fact-checking from the mainstream media has not only failed to prompt solemn apologies from the worst offenders — it’s made them stronger.

Case in point: In the last week alone, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has circulated demonstrably untrue statistics about racial crime and repeated baseless rumors that “thousands and thousands” of Muslim Americans celebrated the 9/11 attacks in the streets of New Jersey. His generalizations and asserted statistics about Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees defy available data. Asked to explain his retweet of false crime data, Trump merely shrugged: "What? Am I gonna check every statistic?"

At least in the eyes of the political press, Trump is by far the campaign’s worst offender when it comes to exaggerations and falsehoods. According to fact-checking project Politifact, Trump has so far clocked in with 41 percent of his statements rated as "false" and 21 percent as the most egregious level, "Pants on Fire."

He’s also still leading Republican primary polls.

More mild untruths are hardly limited to one candidate, or one party, either.

Politifact rates Trump's closest contender, Ben Carson, as having 43 percent of his assertions rated "false" and 13 percent rated as "Pants on Fire."

For Hillary Clinton, it's 11 percent false and 1 percent "Pants on Fire," although she's also racked up 16 percent of statements dubbed the insidious "mostly false."

Voters consistently say they prize candidates they view as “honest and trustworthy” — so how are the race’s most persistent frontrunners still so buoyant even in the face of armies of researchers publicizing their stretches of the truth.

The answer may be that the people Americans distrust the most aren’t the candidates — it’s the fact-checkers.

A new Pew Research Center study released last week showed that 65 percent of Americans say that the news media has an actively negative effect on the way things are going in America.

That’s nearly two-thirds of the country calling the Fourth Estate a bad thing for the U.S.

It’s a worse rating than respondents to Pew’s survey gave to banks, the entertainment industry and large corporations, and it’s not too far off from the dismal assessment given to the most hated of institutions: Congress.

It’s getting worse, too.

In 2010, 57 percent of those surveyed by Pew said that the news media had a negative effect on the country.

And a separate Gallup survey published earlier this year showed that the share of those who say they have at least some trust in the American news media has fallen from 55 percent in 1999 to 40 percent today.

Republicans — and specifically conservative Republicans — are the most pessimistic about the institution that Sarah Palin famously derided as “the lamestream media.”

Eighty-two percent of conservatives told Pew that the media has a negative effect on the United States.

And in the Gallup data, only 32 percent of Republicans said they have confidence in the news media — compared to 55 percent of Democrats.

Certainly, in a fragmented media environment with more outlets, greater commercial pressure and often less oversight of journalists’ output than ever before, some portion of skepticism about the despised MSM is more than valid. (If past is prologue, readers will share their hypotheses on the topic in the comments section of this story.)

But what’s clear is that — with little faith in the press — the fact-benders may continue to fare better than the fact-checkers, especially among the most vociferous partisans.

When NBC’s Katy Tur and Ali Vitali asked voters at a Trump rally recently if they believed the real estate mogul was “bending the truth” with some of his claims, Trump fan Rick Spring chuckled at the idea of such a question coming from the news media at all.

"There's never been more truth bending in our lives," he said.