Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, June 9, 2011 8:22 pm

Fact-checking the fact checker


The Washington Post has a guy named Glenn Kessler writing a column called “The Fact Checker: The Truth Behind the Rhetoric.” I did not know this, but then I don’t read the Post religiously; the existence of this column was brought to my attention by my friend Fred. A little box next to the column talks about all the years Kessler has spent covering this and that in the federal government. What it doesn’t indicate is the extent to which Kessler has learned anything about context.

That’s a problem, friends, because contextual accuracy is just as important as factual accuracy. It is a key element of fairness. It is an essential ingredient in determining the importance of a story. It underlies the frequency with which conservatives accuse national news media of being liberal. And, at least in this instance, it appears to be a subject with which Glenn Kessler has only glancing familiarity.

I say this because of this column, which purports to “fact-check” the president’s recent comments regarding the auto-industry bailout. Kessler focused on this passage:

“Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency — and it repaid that money six years ahead of schedule.  And this week, we reached a deal to sell our remaining stake. That means soon, Chrysler will be 100 percent in private hands.”

And here is what Kessler said about this passage:

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Now, “misleading” is a word most mainstream journalists overuse because they’re too bent, bought, scared or lazy to use more straightforward words like “false” or “lying.” Of course, sophisticated readers know that — and Kessler, being as experienced as the Post claims he is, probably knows that they know that. So Obama must be lying out of his ass, right?

Um, not so much. What the president says does need some contextual clarification, and in fairness to Kessler, he appears to provide that clarification with rigorous factual accuracy:

According to the White House, Obama is counting only the $8.5 billion loan that he made to Chrysler, not the $4 billion that President George W. Bush extended in his last month in office. However, Obama was not a disinterested observer at the time. According to The Washington Post article on the Bush loan, the incoming president called Bush’s action a “necessary step . . . to help avoid a collapse of our auto industry that would have had devastating consequences for our economy and our workers.”

Under the administration’s math, the U.S. government will receive $11.2 billion back from Chrysler, far more than the $8.5 billion Obama extended. …

Even the Treasury Department admits that U.S. taxpayers will not recoup about $1.3 billion of the entire $12.5 billion investment when all is said and done.

But Kessler’s tone puts his own column in need of some contextual clarification, perhaps better known as perspective. Consider this sentence:

The president snuck in the weasel words “during my presidency” in his statement. … Through this sleight-of-hand accounting, the White House can conveniently ignore Bush’s loan …

What Kessler considers “weasel words” an accountant might consider a material factual clarification — hardly “sleight-of-hand accounting.” In any event, Obama is objectively defining the time period he’s talking about, a time period for which he, not his predecessor, is directly responsible. Is his omission of the Bush Administration loan a lie? Hardly. Is it misleading? Yeah, some. One could argue that Obama is talking only about the money lent during his tenure because, arguably, that’s the only money he’s responsible for. I don’t buy that argument — as a senator, he voted for Bush’s bailout loan — but reasonable people could disagree on it.

Or you could look at it this way: It’s not that Obama spun the facts, it’s that he spun them the wrong way. Suppose, instead of using the wording he used, he had said something like this:

We loaned Chrysler $12.3 billion total during my administration and President Bush’s. Yeah, we may have to write off about 12% of that. But we saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Big Three auto makers and their suppliers. I’d do that deal again in a heartbeat.

It’s factually accurate without the misleading spin of which Kessler complains. If I were an incumbent congresscritter who had supported the bailout, particularly one with a lot of auto-industry workers in my district, I’d happily run for re-election on a line like that.

Kessler grudgingly admits that, as the president said, Chrysler will soon return to 100% private ownership. But he errs himself in arguing that “The debate was over the right course to take in the bankruptcy process. … the debate was not either [bankruptcy]/or [not], but rather what was the best policy to bring the automakers back to financial health.”

The fact of the matter was that the debate was technically about what type of bankruptcy might have been the best idea. But the important context, which Kessler glides right past, is that the result of any form of bankruptcy likely would have been the permanent loss  of hundreds of thousands of jobs. I don’t know whether Kessler is objectively pro-Republican or whether the GOP “working the refs” has him bending over backward to avoid the appearance of pro-Obama bias, but his omission of this context is every bit as bad as Obama’s and has far greater consequences.

And yet Kessler awards Obama’s comments three Pinocchios on the Post’s 1-to-4 scale. According to that scale, three Pinocchios indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” I’ll let you decide whether one Pinocchio or two is more appropriate:

  • One Pinocchio: “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”
  • Two Pinocchios: “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.”

If anything, it’s Kessler who deserves three Pinocchios. His contextual shortcomings come a lot closer to the kind of material omission that constitutes a lie than did those of the president.

And here’s some more context: If Kessler wants to check some facts, he could check what government officials are saying about how we’ve coddled investment banks and why it supposedly was necessary not to let them fail.

And here’s even more context: Along with most other major national news outlets, the Post has focused its news coverage far more on the potential dangers of the current large budget deficits (primarily inflation, which, with rates on 10-year notes having fallen half a point in May, looks more remote than ever) than it has on the actual human suffering caused by years of high unemployment. With its coverage, it is saying that jobs don’t matter. That’s a value judgment, not a verifiable or disprovable factual assertion. But it says a great deal about the Post’s values, none of it flattering.

UPDATE: Kessler screws up even worse, failing to get even basic facts straight, in assigning three Pinocchios to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’s recent denigration of Rep. Paul Ryan Medicare scam. Sorry, Glenn, but when you take away Medicare, replace it with vouchers worth substantially less and dump the patients into the private insurance market, it is demonstrable with straightforward mathematics that those people will be able to afford less care. And in that age group, health problems are so common that it logically follows that with less care, a nontrivial number of those people will indeed die sooner than they otherwise would. Saying so is hardly “outrageous”; it is common sense.

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1 Comment »

  1. Lex, I don’t know hoew to break this to you. Cold turkey is probably best

    The Washington Post is secretly owned by an LLC in the Cayman Islands. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Roger Ailes are equal partners.

    NY Times is their next takeover target

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Thursday, June 9, 2011 8:38 pm @ 8:38 pm | Reply


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