About the Fact Checker
By Glenn Kessler,
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
-- C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, 1921
About the Fact Checker
In an award-winning journalism career spanning nearly three decades, Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street. He was The Washington Post’s chief State Department reporter for nine years, traveling around the world with three different Secretaries of State. Before that, he covered tax and budget policy for The Washington Post and also served as the newspaper’s national business editor.
Kessler has long specialized in digging beyond the conventional wisdom, such as when he earned a “laurel” from the Columbia Journalism Review* for obtaining Federal Aviation Administration records that showed that then President Bill Clinton had not delayed any scheduled flights when he had a controversial haircut on an airport tarmac. Kessler helped pioneer the fact-checking of candidates’ statements during the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, when he was chief political correspondent for Newsday, and continued to do it during the last three presidential campaigns for The Post.
In 2007, St. Martins Press published Kessler’s widely acclaimed book on Condoleezza Rice, The Confidante. Kessler appears frequently on television and has lectured widely on U.S. foreign policy.
This column first appeared during the 2008 campaign and The Washington Post revived it as a permanent feature at the start of 2011.
We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials--in the United States and abroad--that cry out for fact-checking. It’s a big world out there, and so we will rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked.
The purpose of this Web site, and an accompanying column in the Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, we will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.
The success of this project depends, to a great extent, on the involvement of you--the reader. We will rely on our readers to send us suggestions on topics to fact check and tips on erroneous claims by political candidates, interest groups, and the media. Readers can even vote on what topics they need to have addressed. Once we have posted an item on a subject, we invite your comments and contributions. You can follow us on Twitter at GlennKesslerWP or friend us on Facebook. We welcome comments and suggestions via tweets (Include #FactCheckThis in your tweet) or on our Facebook page.
You can also email us at email@example.com.
If you have facts or documents that shed more light on the subject under discussion, or if you think we have made a mistake, let us know. We also want to make sure that the authors of questionable claims have ample opportunity to argue their case. We plan to issue our own opinion on factual disputes (see our rules on the “Pinocchio Test” on this Web page) but it can be revised and updated when fresh evidence emerges.
On January 15, 2012, C-Span aired a one-hour interview with Glenn Kessler about the Fact Checker column and his life and career.<object id=’cspan-video-player’ classid=’clsid:d27cdb6eae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000’ codebase=’http://fpdownload.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=9,0,0,0’ align=’middle’ height=’500’ width=’410’><param name=’allowScriptAccess’ value=’true’/><param name=’movie’ value=’http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/assets/swf/CSPANPlayer.swf?pid=303324-1’/><param name=’quality’ value=’high’/><param name=’bgcolor’ value=’#ffffff’/><param name=’allowFullScreen’ value=’true’/><param name=’flashvars’ value=’system=http://www.c-spanvideo.org/common/services/flashXml.php?programid=267349&style=full’/><embed name=’cspan-video-player’ src=’http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/assets/swf/CSPANPlayer.swf?pid=303324-1’ allowScriptAccess=’always’ bgcolor=’#ffffff’ quality=’high’ allowFullScreen=’true’ type=’application/x-shockwave-flash’ pluginspage=’http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer’ flashvars=’system=http://www.c-spanvideo.org/common/services/flashXml.php?programid=267349&style=full’ align=’middle’ height=’500’ width=’410’></embed></object>
A transcript of the interview is also available.
Speech: Fact checking the presidential candidates
Glenn Kessler gives a speech about fact checking the 2012 presidential campaign, pointing out the Pinocchios in various political ads.<iframe width=”450” height=”253” src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/07ezCCICoIY?rel=0” frameborder=”0” allowfullscreen></iframe>
A Few Basic Principles
· This is a fact-checking operation, not an opinion-checking operation. We are interested only in verifiable facts, though on occasion we may examine the roots of political rhetoric.
·We will focus our attention and resources on the issues that are most important to voters. We cannot nitpick every detail of every speech.
·We will stick to the facts of the issue under examination and are unmoved by ad hominem attacks. The identity or political ties of the person or organization making a charge is irrelevant: all that matters is whether their facts are accurate or inaccurate.
·We will adopt a “reasonable man” standard for reaching conclusions. We do not demand 100 percent proof.
·We will strive to be dispassionate and non-partisan, drawing attention to inaccurate statements on both left and right.
The Pinocchio Test
Where possible, we will adopt the following standard in fact-checking the claims of a politician, political candidate, diplomat or interest group.
Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.
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.
Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.
The Geppetto Checkmark
Statements and claims that contain “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will be recognized with our prized Geppetto checkmark.
An Upside-Down Pinocchio
A statement that represents a clear but unacknowledged “flip-flop” from a previously-held position.
There will be many occasions when it is impossible to render a snap judgment because the issue is very complex or there are good arguments on both sides. In this case, we will withhold our judgment until we can gather more facts. We will use this website to shed as much light as possible on factual controversies that are not easily resolved.
A Further Explanation of the Pinocchio Test
The hardest part of our job is deciding how many Pinocchios a claim gets — and then dealing with the torrent of email from readers who think we are being either too hard or too soft on the subject. It is admittedly subjective, but over time, we have developed a bit of a matrix to help us sort through the relative scale of a misstatement. For instance:
1. Is this from prepared remarks or just an off the cuff remark? Misstatements in prepared remarks tend to get worse grades.
2. How central is this “fact” to the point the politician was trying to make? If a politician keys his or her speech off this errant fact, he or she is going to get graded more harshly.
3. Did the politician use weasel words to try to disguise the sleight of hand he or she were performing? If we catch the magician’s tricks, there are more Pinocchios.
4. Did the suspect data come from a reputable, neutral source or from a partisan think tank? The politician loses points if they rely on dubious sources.
We tend to give some credit to people who admit they made a mistake, or at least can provide an explanation for their error. We are always willing to listen. There are some politicians with excellent staffs who quickly respond with the facts and tend not to try to spin us. Some politicians have even called us directly to make their case.
In some cases, we have been convinced to reduce the number of Pinocchios or even drop the matter. Even if we don’t change our assessment, a cooperative response certainly helps build credibility for the next time we come calling.
There are other politicians whose staffs refuse to respond to our queries or react with outrage or disdain that we might dare to question their spin. Over time, that becomes tiresome and suggests the politician and their staffs have little interest in the facts. Does that affect their Pinocchio ranking? We hope not, but we’re only human.
Here’s how our matrix came into play in rulings over one particular week in 2011:
Four Pinocchios for Vice President Biden: We gave Biden Four Pinocchios for his comments that linked fewer cops to more rapes in Flint, Mich. This was a key part of his pitch for the administration’s new jobs bill, and he said this repeatedly. But the statistics were wrong—which anyone could discover with a few clicks on the computer—and yet his staff pointed the finger at officials in Flint. Finally, while there is some debate about whether more cops reduces crime, the Flint police chief was on record as saying there was no link in his city. That cinched it for us. If the man on the ground thought it was not an issue, why did Biden?
Three Pinocchios for Rick Perry: The Texas governor and GOP presidential hopeful unveiled a plan for a new flat tax this week. The highlight of his speech was Perry pointing to a stack of 72,000 pages of paper and declaring, “That’s what the current tax code looks like.” But it turns out the tax code is really only about 4,000 pages long. While the issue may seem trivial, we gave three Pinocchios because it was a central part of his speech and because the number was so off base from reality.
Two Pinocchios for Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor, and ultimately the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, during a primary debate made two problematic claims about illegal immigration in Texas. His staff was able to quickly provide the citations for that data. One figure came from the Department of Homeland Security, but Romney made a leap of logic--that this showed Texas’s in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants was a “magnet”--that was not borne out by the facts. The other statistic came from a study by a think tank opposed to immigration--and which had come under attack for its methodology.
One Pinocchio for David Axelrod: This column looked at a series of statements the Obama political advisor made during a conference call. Most involved slight exaggeration of some form or another, particularly the citation of an economist who is a registered Democrat as “[John] McCain’s economist” in the last election. The Obama campaign staff spent several days responding to emails, trying to make the case for Axelrod’s statements, and in one case helped change our thinking about one comment.
As always, we welcome comments and suggestions from readers about how to improve our analyses and rankings.
All judgments are subject to debate and criticism from our readers and interested parties, and can be revised if fresh evidence emerges. We invite you to join the discussion on these pages and contact the Fact Checker directly with tips, suggestions, and complaints. 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.
Columbia Journalism Review, May 1993:
* “LAUREL to New York Newsday, and to staff writer Glenn Kessler, for a record-breaking solo flight. With most of the nation’s news media zooming in on the president’s $ 200 haircut on the Los Angeles Airport runway and roaring about the disruptions his hirsutic hubris caused, Kessler took off in a different direction -- and landed on some hard, concrete facts. His analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that, contrary to stories of circling planes, jammed-up runways, and inconvenienced passengers (and contrary, too, to the apology the White House felt pressured to make), only one (unscheduled) air taxi reported an actual (two-minute) delay. Unfortunately, most of the nation’s news media, in usual near-perfect formation, found neither time nor space to correct a story that had been wildly off course.”