My buddy the Major (Ret.) is fond of using Facebook as a platform for his political fulminations (as if he didn’t have a perfectly fine blog he could use for such occasions). One of his favorite things to do is to cite the St. Petersburg Times‘s “Fact Check” column, generally with a declaration that this august, Pulitzer-winning institution finds the Right to be just making stuff up 1700% more often than the Left.
This isn’t bad rhetoric on his part, insofar as people respect the ethos of the fact-checkers. But what if “[t]he fact checker is less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest in the outcome”?
That’s the question Mark Hemingway asks at The Weekly Standard. He notes that the AP and the SPT are inclined to subject some utterances to considerably closer scrutiny than others, and gives specific examples:
When he wrote that, [Poltico’s Ben] Smith was quite rightly annoyed with Glenn Kessler, who writes “The Fact Checker” blog on the Washington Post website. (Kessler’s gimmick is rating political statements on a scale of one to four with cutesy Pinocchio-nose graphics.)
On August 17, Kessler wrote an item supporting President Obama’s denial at a town hall in Iowa that Vice President Joe Biden had called Tea Party activists “terrorists” in a meeting with congressional Democrats. In the process, Kessler had singled out Politico for breaking the story.
Politico’s report about Biden’s comments indeed created a minor controversy. Days later, the vice president came forward and claimed the report was “absolutely not true,” that he was merely engaged in a discussion with unnamed lawmakers who were venting about the Tea Party.
After supplying a rudimentary summary of what happened, Kessler reached a conclusion that is at once unsure of itself and sharply judgmental. “Frankly, we are dubious that Biden actually said this. [Emphasis mine — Prof. M] And if he did, he was simply echoing what another speaker said, in a private conversation, as opposed to making a public statement.”
In response, Smith unloaded on Kessler. “Either [Biden] said it, or he didn’t. That’s the fact to check here. The way to check it is to report it out, not to attack the people who did report it out and label their reporting ‘dubious’ based on nothing more than instinct and the questionable and utterly self-interested word of politicians and their staffers.”
Provoked by Kessler, Politico took the unusual step of actually detailing how the Biden story was nailed down. Politico maintains that Biden’s remarks were confirmed by five different sources in the room with Biden, and that they were in contact with the vice president’s office for hours before the story ran. Biden’s office had ample opportunity to answer the reporters’ account before it ran and didn’t dispute it.
Note that despite Biden’s subsequent denials, the vice president’s office never asked for a formal retraction. The facts here seem to suggest that the vice president, whose history of plagiarism and verbal incontinence is the stuff of legend, not only called Tea Partiers “terrorists” but later lied about having done so. One would think that this would be a news story in itself.
But instead of looking at these facts, it appears Glenn Kessler engaged in what his colleague Greg Sargent referred to as all “the usual he-said-she-said crap that often mars political reporting”—but with the extra dollop of sanctimony that comes from writing under the “pseudo-scientific banner” of “The Fact Checker.”
There’s plenty of good stuff here, and although it won’t stop the Major (Ret.), who is more interested in his partisan activity than in actually promoting honest debate, it should at least remind us to ask the old question: Who watches the watchmen?
H/T: Jonah at The Corner