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The Washington Post's Feckless 'Fact-Check' | The Nation

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The Washington Post's Feckless 'Fact-Check'

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Those of us who continue to expect the mainstream media to uphold their constitutionally appointed role as government watchdog must be a masochistic bunch. Even allowing for the constant barrage of lies on Fox News, the constant stream of inanity on CNN and the hackery of a once-respected Harvard history professor publishing Republican propaganda in a cover story for Newsweek, the single most aggravating example of the press’s lack of interest in keeping anyone honest anymore is this: Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s political “Fact Checker” columnist, cannot be bothered with facts.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Don’t take my word for it. Take his. Paul Ryan’s convention speech from Tampa—which even former Bush consultant Matthew Dowd admitted repeatedly “stretched the truth”—was explicitly given a pass by Kessler beneath the headline: “The truth? C’mon, this is a political convention.”

Kessler’s column demonstrates much of what is wrong with the MSM at their most elite level. In his defense of Ryan’s now well-documented distortions, for instance, Kessler writes, “The whole point is for the party to put its best foot forward to the American people. By its very nature, that means downplaying unpleasant facts, highlighting the positive and knocking down the opposing team.” Kessler never explains why this is impossible to do without, say, offering a deliberately dishonest timeline regarding the closing of a GM factory. It’s as if the entire notion of “truth” is some quaint and outdated notion with which sophisticates like the Washington Post’s “fact-checker” can no longer be bothered.

Kessler does admit to finding the first night of the Republican convention “a bit odd, since it was devoted to the political exploitation of a single Obama gaffe—‘You didn’t build that’—the Republicans blatantly misrepresent.” By using the word “gaffe,” however, Kessler implies that President Obama misspoke when he used that phrase. Yet according to any remotely sensible interpretation of Obama’s now infamous words, the “that” refers not to the businesses themselves (as the Republicans, Fox News and much of the mainstream media pretend it did) but to the physical infrastructure that makes commerce possible. The purposeful misinterpretation of such a statement through the use of doctored video ought to be exactly the kind of distortion that a “fact-checker” like Kessler undertakes to correct. Instead, he chose to find fault with the victim of this dishonest attack.

Kessler speculates that “Ryan was so quickly labeled a fibber by the Obama campaign that one suspects it was a deliberate effort to tear down his reputation as a policy expert, similar to using attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital record to undermine his reputation as a skilled business executive.” Amazingly, Kessler doesn’t even pause to consider the possibility that Ryan was “so quickly labeled a fibber” because he was fibbing.

Kessler also seeks to create a sense of false equivalence between the Republicans—whose lies have become endemic and central to their appeal—and the Democrats, who remain largely reality-based. Amazingly, he does this without bothering to point to a single lie told at a Democratic convention. Even when Kessler does attempt to hang a falsehood around the Democrats’ neck, the best he can do is to complain that, during Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech in Denver, the then-candidate “knocked McCain for voting 90 percent of the time with his own party.”

What’s so weird about this example is that what Obama said was true, and nowhere does Kessler dispute this. Rather, he faults Obama—I swear I’m not making this up—for failing to mention that he himself “voted 97 percent of the time with Democrats.” Kessler seems to think that it would have been right and proper for the party’s presidential nominee, at a Democratic convention, to berate himself for voting with his fellow Democrats. At this point, one has to ask if Kessler is being dumb or deliberately dishonest. He knows very well that the “maverick” McCain’s appeal to independent voters was based on his willingness—vastly exaggerated in the mainstream media—to buck his own party. At the close of George W. Bush’s two disastrous terms as president, generic Republicans were as popular with independent voters as venereal disease, and so McCain’s campaign desperately sought to portray the Arizona senator as independent from Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Abramoff, Armey and the rest of the right-wing wrecking crew. Candidate Obama argued, correctly, that McCain’s voting record put the lie to this claim. But Obama’s record of supporting his own (then much more popular) party was not at issue, since his campaign made no such “maverick” claims for its candidate. Kessler pretends not to understand this for the purpose of falsely equating Obama’s perfectly accurate statement with deliberate Republican falsehoods. And it is on this false foundation—and this one alone—that he somehow concludes that the 2012 GOP convention “was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.”

Perhaps the elite journalistic disease of “on-the-one-hand-ism” has eaten away at Kessler’s brain to the point where he no longer understands the meaning of the word “fact.” Much like the financial rating agencies that signed off on Ponzi schemes and criminal accounting practices during the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, the Washington Post’s “fact-checker” is charged with ensuring the integrity of the system he judges but has chosen to enable its corruption instead.

Glenn Kessler is a veteran reporter, and one who had a decent reputation before he undertook this assignment. Today he’s the perfect example of a well-worked ref: an unwitting weapon in the Republicans’ war on knowledge and, sadly, a symbol of the mainstream media’s failure to keep American politics remotely honest—or even tethered to reality.

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