In politics, a fact can be an elusive thing.
Political journalism isn’t always much better. It’s a sphere that draws people with strong opinions, and those opinions can get in the way of things like “what actually happened.”
I read a lot of political coverage, and among the most refreshing sources I consult is The Washington Post’s column “The Fact Checker,” which is hard to beat in its impartial advocacy of the truth.
The Fact Checker is written by Glenn Kessler, and first appeared in 2008. It became a permanent Washington Post feature in 2011. Kessler evaluates claims made in interviews, speeches and ads, ultimately assigning a rating: one to four “Pinocchios,” which cover selective truth telling up through “whoppers.” He also awards the elusive “Geppetto” checkmark, for statements that check out as entirely, objectively true, and the occasional “judgment withheld,” for situations when the truth behind a statement simply isn’t clear.
Of course, how many Pinocchios a given incident garners is subjective, to a point. In responding to reader questions last year, Kessler said, “[…] one has to keep a sense of proportion about what is a gaffe and what is a deliberate misstatement.” He also points out that “[…] a really bad fact in a prepared speech would probably fare worse than something said in an interview. Context is important.” The difference between three and four Pinocchios is often a matter of timing, proximity to other questionable assertions, or importance in a broader context.
Perhaps most tellingly, at the end of the Post’s introduction, “About the Fact Checker,” the paper exhorts readers: “If you feel that we are being too harsh on one candidate and too soft on another, there is a simple remedy: let us know about misstatements and factual errors we may have overlooked.”
In today’s hyper-partisan Washington, both sides tell four-Pinocchio-whoppers, and Kessler consistently calls out both sides for doing so. He’s also quick to clarify that two wrongs don’t make a right, as in this Obama campaign ad, which bent the truth while responding to an ad Kessler had previously dismantled.
Kessler avoids challenging candidates and office holders on their opinions, interpretations and policy positions. The impulse to critique an ideological stance is what colors so much of the political discourse, even - perhaps especially - among journalists. Kessler, instead, concerns himself only with verifying, as best he can, factual claims. He grants candidates the right to favor what they want; he just does not grant them the right to mislead, confuse, or lie to the public.
Two examples from earlier this year demonstrate Kessler’s process. In February, he tackled a statement from White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, in which Lew claimed “You can’t pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes,” suggesting that bipartisan gridlock might make passing a budget impossible. Kessler took the opportunity to elucidate the process of budgeting at the federal level; he went on to explain that Lew’s statement was frankly wrong, in its sense and its particulars. Kessler wrote that “the former budget director twice chose to use highly misleading language that blamed Republicans for the failure of the Democratic leadership.” As a two-time budget director himself, Kessler argued, Lew should have known better.
A little over a month later, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., leveled a serious charge at the Obama administration. “Stimulus was supposed to be quick. In fact, they never intended to spend it and will not completely have effectively spent it until after the president’s re-elect. Always looking at how do you get the maximum hit when the president was up for re-elect.” Kessler lays aside the question of the stimulus’ effectiveness as irrelevant to the issue at hand. Instead, he tracks the allocation of stimulus funds, concluding that most of it has been allocated. The response from Issa’s staff offers no supporting evidence to back the representative’s claim, though it compliments the Fact Checker’s earlier work. Kessler expresses the sentiment, again, that two wrongs don’t make a right, “[…] much as we appreciate the reference to our previous work.” Citing Kessler’s previous criticism of the Obama administration is not sufficient evidence for a baseless claim.
It’s nice to be reminded, now and then, that our political-journalistic complex still has room for those who want to hold politicians responsible for the statements they make. Here’s hoping Kessler will keep checking the facts for a long time to come.