Earlier this year, the Washington Post nominated Glenn Kessler and his “Fact Checker” team for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in the National Reporting category. Kessler was not named as a finalist by the Pulitzer committee, which meant that the nomination was never made public. Marty Baron, the Post’s editor, confirmed the nomination.
The thrust of the nomination, sources said, focused on Kessler’s work debunking the many lies of President Donald Trump, hung on a September 2018 piece that marked Trump’s 5,000th “false or misleading claim.”
For longtime hate-readers of Kessler’s work, the news of his Pulitzer nomination will land like a punchline to a cruel joke, but it also helps explain why the Post has so consistently stood by Kessler’s operation even in the face of savage criticism over the years from Democrats who have pointed out repeated factual errors in his “fact checks.” The outcry from the left is not cause for concern — instead, it’s highly convenient for the Post brass, as it allows the paper to feel more comfortable about its passion for checking Trump’s thousands of lies.
Outcry from the left is not cause for concern — instead, it’s highly convenient for the Post brass.
The Trump era has forced the mainstream media to rethink its approach to covering the White House, given Trump’s willingness to lie so flagrantly. Just recently, Trump utterly fabricated Chinese trade talks, and his aides later admitted that not only had he done so, but he had also made it up in order to juice the stock market. In other circumstances, this would be considered criminal behavior. In the case of the president, such statements put reporters in a sticky position, as repeating them in print likely amplifies falsehoods. But he’s still the president, and what he says is newsworthy. So what to do?
The mainstream media has been proud of their ability to break with tradition and begin to occasionally use the word “lie” or “racist” to describe lies or racism, and in many cases, reporters and editors have taken a genuinely adversarial approach to this White House. Kessler’s team has doggedly tracked Trump’s infidelity to the truth, tallying more than 10,000 “false or misleading claims” by now.
But breaking with tradition is uncomfortable, and it’s nice to have a cushion of “both sides” in the face of potential accusations of liberal bias. The anger pouring forth, particularly from Sen. Bernie Sanders and his backers, serves that purpose nicely.
Earlier this summer, Sanders suggested that his lousy coverage at the Post might have something to do with his criticism of and legislative efforts targeting Amazon. In 2018, he introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, to shame the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, for the low wages he pays workers, contractors, and subcontractors. Bezos responded by announcing a wage hike.
Baron responded to Sanders’s general charge and went straight to the refuge most favored by journalists in response to criticism — noting that other people, of other political persuasions, have also complained.
“Senator Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians — of every ideology — who complain about their coverage,” Baron said. “Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
I asked Baron specifically about the beef between Kessler and Sanders, and he said he was standing behind his “Fact Checker” again noting that people on all sides have problems with his work.
I am extremely proud of the Fact Checker team, which has been widely recognized for its very difficult, rigorous and impartial work over many years. Inevitably, they catch fire from individuals across the political spectrum. That comes with the territory. I was on vacation, but I promised the campaign a response from the newsroom. I was among the editors who reviewed and approved the response to the Sanders campaign. I believe it forthrightly explained the Fact Checker’s reasoning. I know first-hand that they go about their work honestly and honorably and without any ideological agenda, and they have performed a real service.
Sanders later backtracked the specific charge that Bezos himself* is responsible for his negative coverage, and for good reason: It suggests that Bezos, specifically, is the problem, rather than the structural pressures that push the corporate media in a direction hostile to the left. No progressive would seriously suggest that the Post was somehow sympathetic to the left before Bezos bought the paper in 2013. “Manufacturing Consent,” after all, was published 25 years earlier.
But something has changed in that time. While it’s true that Kessler’s “Fact Checker” checks the facts of both the right and the left, it is not true that “both sides” complain equally. The Trump White House has long since stopped concerning itself with fact-checkers. (In this, Trump is actually walking on ground trod in 2012 by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster, declared.)
In fact, Trump has capitalized on casting the media as an unpopular and untrustworthy institution. For Trump, public battles between the media and the White House are advantageous; being on the opposite side of whatever Chuck Todd or Chris Cuomo think is presumed solid political ground.
That dynamic creates an asymmetry: Trump loves to be on the business end of media criticism, while the media is uncomfortable leveling it, worried about charges of bias and imbalance. Trump, rewarded for his lies by the coverage he craves, ramps them up higher, which makes the media hit that much harder. Now, to balance things out, they need to hit somebody else.
Trying to balance the scales between Trump’s lies and his opponents on the other side is of course a fool’s errand.
At the Post, that errand belongs institutionally to Kessler and his team of two deputies, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly, whose favorite punching bag has clearly become Sanders. Sanders is the perfect foil because his online defenders are the most rambunctious in the Democratic primary, and Kessler is so blatant at what he does that he has managed to rally hardcore Sanders detractors to Sanders’s defense.
Kessler has discovered that the more ideologically driven the fact-check, the more fury — and the more hate-clicks — it draws. And the more that people savage Kessler’s fact-checks of Sanders, the easier it is for Kessler and the Post to justify his focus on Trump.
Kessler launched the “Fact Checker” in 2007 at the Post and has faced criticism along the way for his tendency to substitute ideology for rigorous assessment.
Back then, Barack Obama was a frequent focus of his political re-education attempts. This led to one laugh-out-loud moment in which Kessler dished out four Pinocchios (Kessler’s rating system for misleading statements) for a fact that the Post itself put on its front page.
In a 2012 election ad, Obama’s campaign charged: “Running for governor, Mitt Romney campaigned as a job creator. But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico. As governor, he did the same thing: Outsourcing state jobs to India.” To back up the claim, the Obama campaign sent Kessler reams of Security and Exchange Commission documents. Kessler found them unpersuasive and rated the claim — which was true — as a four-Pinocchio lie.
The Obama campaign also sent the SEC documents to an actual Post reporter, Tom Hamburger, who studied them and — on the same day that Kessler published his fact-check, June 21, 2012 — published a front-page story, headlined “Romney’s Bain Capital invested in companies that moved jobs overseas,” citing China and India in the first line. Kessler never even updated his item to note that he was in fervent disagreement with his own newspaper’s reporters and editors.
While it’s true that Kessler’s “Fact Checker” checks the facts of both the right and the left, it is not true that “both sides” complain equally.
In 2015, Kessler dismissed a Sanders claim about job losses. Sanders cited Congressional Budget Office numbers showing that budget caps would cost the economy 1.4 million jobs. Kessler responded that it was unfair for Sanders to use the CBO’s high estimate and that the number should be cut in half because the CBO was talking about two years. So he pulled the number down to 300,000 and dismissed it as inconsequential. “Here’s another bit of context on those 300,000 additional workers: The U.S. economy gained nearly 450,000 employees just in the months of June and July,” he wrote. “In context, and properly counted, it’s a real stretch to speak of ‘enormous’ job losses.” His economically ignorant assessment was ridiculed, clicks successfully driven to the Post.
But the firestorm of protest has risen to its highest levels yet in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke got the ideological treatment during the second Democratic debate, when he asserted, “Wind and solar jobs are the fastest-growing jobs in the country.”
Kelly, on Kessler’s team, reported that the Bureau of Labor Statistics indeed “projects solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine technicians will grow the fastest between 2016 and 2026.” If Kessler’s operation were dedicated to checking facts, the item would have ended there. O’Rourke made a claim, the claim checks out, everyone moves on. Kelly, however, did not move on. Her next sentence: “But that doesn’t mean they are common professions.”
Kelly went on to note that wind and solar jobs are “a minuscule percentage of the total 167.6 million people employed.” Sure. Except, of course, O’Rourke never said otherwise.
In July, Kessler dug into a Sanders statement that “right now, 500,000 Americans are sleeping out on the street and yet companies like Amazon that made billions in profits did not pay one nickel in federal income tax.” Kessler grudgingly allowed that the first part of Sanders’s sentence is true or at least was true on one night: “Sanders’s number comes from a single-night survey done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a single night in January in 2018, the estimate was 553,000 people.”
From there, he moved on, recasting Sanders’s statement about Amazon into a broader conversation about corporate taxes and using language that reflects a pro-business ideology: “Sanders has a point that large corporations including Amazon use many tools and strategies to substantially cut down their tax bills. But they do pay some taxes.”
Kessler recast Sanders’s statement about Amazon into a broader conversation about corporate taxes.
He then gave space to the anti-tax Tax Foundation to note that, at times over the years, Amazon has indeed paid some taxes. Kessler never informed the reader of what a simple Google search turns up: Amazon paid no federal income taxes in 2018. Instead, he wrote, “The Wall Street Journal reported in June that it’s not clear whether Amazon paid taxes in 2018.”
Earlier that month, Kessler had protested Sanders’s assertion that “three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” Kessler acknowledged that “this snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up,” but, as usual, Kessler wasn’t finished. The statement compared “apples to oranges,” he argued, because “people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have.” Kessler is smart enough to know that the explicit suggestion that rich people and poor people simply can’t be compared to each other is wildly offensive, especially in a nation that fancies itself not to have rigid class distinctions. But such an outrageous claim is good for business and led to the expected outcry.
When Sanders claimed that “millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive,” Kessler checked it and found it to be true. “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job,” Kessler reported, confirming Sanders’s assertion. Yet, he went on: “But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And the ‘millions’ of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent of workers are not working two or three jobs ‘just to survive,’ making this a misleading statement.”
It’s part of Kessler’s pattern: Sanders makes a claim, Kessler finds it to be factual but still condemns it, in many cases simply because he doesn’t find it meaningful. Wind and solar aren’t big enough to count; a few hundred thousand jobs lost is just meh; yes, “millions” is correct, but it’s not really that big a number.
When Sanders noted that Wall Street had gotten a “trillion dollar bailout” — a number that far undershoots the real figure, according to the Government Accountability Office — Kessler said it was false, decreeing that money from the Federal Reserve to bail out a bank is not bailout money. When Sanders said that Hitler won an election, Kessler called him a liar and was promptly lampooned.
“You are cherry-picking lines that support your thesis, rather than looking at the full text of the works,” said Washington Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti.
It’s part of Kessler’s pattern: Sanders makes a claim, Kessler finds it to be factual but still condemns it, in many cases simply because he doesn’t find it meaningful.
Kessler also sometimes turns to “experts” associated with big business. In August, the “Fact Checker” team landed back in the social media barrel when it questioned Sanders’s citation of a peer-reviewed editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, or AJPH, saying that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The author of the editorial, David Himmelstein, came to Sanders’s defense, saying that Sanders had correctly characterized his findings. Rizzo also claimed that the editorial was not peer-reviewed, which was also false.
Stunningly, in order to refute Himmelstein, the “Fact Checker” turned to an analyst who cut his teeth with a tobacco lobby front group.
Craig Garthwaite is described by Rizzo as “a health-care policy expert in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.” Garthwaite argues that because many people have medical debt who do not go bankrupt, the study is flawed:
Rather than looking at a sample of people who go bankrupt and see how many have medical debt, look at a sample of a bunch of people who have medical debt, and how many of them go bankrupt. And that gives you an idea of causality.
Imagine claiming that because millions of people use heroin without overdosing, you can’t make any claims of causality between heroin and overdoses. It’s such a tendentious argument that it makes you wonder what’s going on with the expert.
A look at his bio shows that Garthwaite was previously director of research for the Employment Policies Institute. Allowing him to adjudicate this Sanders claim is not much different than going directly to the insurance industry.
EPI is a right-wing front operated by notorious corporate PR man Richard Berman, who ran an infamous tobacco industry propaganda campaign. As the New York Times reported in 2014, Berman “has repeatedly created official-sounding nonprofit groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that have challenged limits like the ban on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.” The EPI, the Times writes, was “most often described only as a ‘nonprofit research organization,’” but in practice was indiscernible from the for-profit firm: “The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. Mr. Berman’s for-profit advertising firm, instead, ‘bills’ the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute.”
Warming up, Berman’s man drops the hammer on Sanders’s claim: “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong. Just because the number’s big doesn’t make it right, even if you want to agree with the premise. And we should be careful about this. I’m not saying that medical debt and bankruptcy is not a problem, but I think we should have a conversation about the appropriate scale of the problem.”
“Fact Checker” never noted Garthwaite’s ideological or professional priors. Himmelstein didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt; Rizzo characterizes him as “a professor at CUNY’s Hunter College who supports single-payer health care.”
That Himmelstein, who wrote a peer-reviewed editorial for the AJPH, had his politics described by “Fact Checker,” but the former research director for a corporate front group did not, is another case of “Fact Checker’s” ideology showing through. Ideology is most effective when it is invisibly presented.
“Fact Checker” awarded Sanders and the AJPH three Pinocchios. Even more startling is how differently the Post treated Charles Blauhaus, a researcher at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center. Blauhaus, a libertarian economist, published a study in 2018 that included a data point Democrats seized on: If enacted, he concluded, Medicare for All would save $2 trillion over a 10-year period, compared to current health care spending projections.
When Democrats pounced on the irony that even a Koch-backed think tank confirmed that Medicare for All reduced health care spending, Kessler fact-checked the claim. He went back to the embarrassed Blauhaus, who said that no matter what his study said, he didn’t believe that it would be possible to enact the Medicare for All bill as Sanders had written it. To pass it through Congress, he argued, reimbursement rates would need to be increased, which would then cost more money. Kessler wrote that he was siding with the author of the study. “All too often,” he wrote, “politicians mischaracterize conclusions that are contained in academic or think tank studies. At the Fact Checker, we rely heavily on how a study’s author says the data should be presented.”
So, to recap, a Medicare for All opponent is given the leeway to change the presentation of his non-peer-reviewed white paper, but Himmelstein is not, even though his editorial went through the peer-review process. “Apparently they implement that policy when it’s convenient for them,” Himmelstein told me. No explanation other than the blinders of ideology explain such disparate treatment.
Though Kessler had checked, in that case, a statement made by Andrew Gillum, Sanders was mentioned in the piece, and a spokesperson, Warren Gunnels, called to complain. “I’ve known Chuck for years, and I trust what he has to say,” Kessler told him, according to Gunnels. Case closed.
Himmelstein demanded a retraction, saying that the false claim that the editorial wasn’t peer-reviewed “besmirched” his reputation. The “Fact Checker” refused to issue a correction, saying that its language — “the editorial did not undergo the same peer-reviewed editing process as a research article” — was technically correct, as the processes are different. The implication of the charge, of course, is obvious, though Kessler pretended that it wasn’t.
This is false. Article did not say it was not peer-reviewed. We quote an editor saying the "editorial" did not undergo the same peer-reviewed editing process as a research article but note it used a methodology similar to what the researchers used in a 2005 peer-reviewed study. https://t.co/wRiudt0R8L— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) August 29, 2019
Amusingly, such a pedantic and hair-splitting defense made by a politician for an obviously misleading claim would earn the poor soul two Pinocchios, according to Kessler’s guide, which notes, “A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.”
Kessler stood by the “fact-check,” eliciting widespread scorn. At The Nation, Jeet Heer warned that “the Washington Post is feeding into Trump’s agenda by turning fact-checking into an ideological weapon.”
When I asked Kessler whether he felt like he was allowing ideology to drive his fact-checking operation, he connected me with Coratti, the spokesperson for the Post, who wrote:
I take issue with the premise of your questions. Glenn and the Fact Checker team are not guided by ideology or any particular “world view.” They check the facts and report what they find. In fact, the team writes dozens of fact checks every month. I think you need to look at the body of the work, which fact checks public officials and advocacy organizations across the political spectrum, rather than trying to make a handful of fact checks appear to prove some kind of bias. There is no shortage of people — across that spectrum — who resist this kind of accountability.
That complaints come from “across the political spectrum” again becomes the shield, but, as Heer shows, I’m far from the only person to observe the ideology at work. On Twitter, where outrage at Kessler lives its best life, his many critics have seized on an eyebrow-raising element of his background.
Glenn Kessler's great-grandfather was largely responsible for Shell Oil becoming a global enterprise. His grandfather, born into wealth, became a steel magnate. And his father was an executive at Procter & Gamble.— jordan (@JordanUhl) September 3, 2019
Anyway, fifteen Pinocchios for the progressive candidate!
It’s true. In 2011, Kessler sat down for an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, who asked him about his connection to Royal Dutch Shell. Kessler told him that his great-grandfather, August Kessler, had in fact built the firm now known as Shell. Kessler’s grandfather had been expected to take over for him, but when August died young, at 47, Kessler’s grandfather decided to leave the company and instead created the largest steel company in Holland. His grandfather’s brother would later become Shell’s CEO. Meanwhile, Kessler’s father emigrated to the United States and became an executive at Proctor & Gamble.
In 2014, when Kessler was attempting to debunk a claim by Tom Steyer about the Keystone XL project — “Chinese state investment in the Canadian oil sands is an interesting development, but not worthy of the jingoistic treatment given here,” Kessler opined — he disclosed that he owns shares of Royal Dutch Shell. That it was big enough to disclose suggests that his stake isn’t a small one.
The left in the U.S. does not wantonly link ideology to great family oil and steel wealth, because so many heirs of industrial titans have gone rogue. Others are trusted to be professional. It’s no secret that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a scion of Vanderbilt wealth — his mother is Gloria Vanderbilt — but he has no transparent hostility to the left, so it’s not made an issue. Not so for Kessler. (“Glenn does not have a bias one way or the other. The attempt to use his family history as some sort of proof of bias is absurd,” said the Post spokesperson.)
Kessler’s critics are not confined to Twitter or the Sanders campaign, but are legion — if much more private — within the Post newsroom, where his work is seen by many young reporters and editors as an embarrassment. But Baron sent a strong signal by nominating Kessler and his team for a Pulitzer. “Marty believes the work Glenn is doing is important,” one newsroom source said, “and doesn’t want to publicly undercut that.”
Kessler is doing that well enough on his own. And that’s a fact.
The media, meanwhile, continues to struggle to strike the right balance in reporting on Trump. At the same time that Trump made up trade talks in order to artificially boost the stock market, he also appears to have taken a Sharpie to a meteorological map of Hurricane Dorian and altered it to fit something else he made up. Guess which lie took up a week of cable news time?
*I have no reason to believe that Bezos is monkeying with Post coverage. I do know, however, that he has an interest in how Amazon is covered. In 2015 at the Huffington Post, where I previously worked, Bezos vigorously attempted to kill an investigation into the death of an Amazon warehouse worker. He was unsuccessful.