“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 more than 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 four presidential campaigns for The Post.
The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) in 2015 awarded Kessler its Media Literate Media award, presented every two years, for his work on The Fact Checker.
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 Sunday print edition of The Washington Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As a 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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, which has been viewed on-line more than 400,000 times. (A transcript of the interview is also available.) In 2014, C-SPAN aired a second one-hour interview with Kessler.
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 person” 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. Repeated misstatements of previously debunked statistics can, over time, result in higher Pinocchio ratings for a particular claim. In other words, we may hold a politician to a higher standard if he or she already has been put on notice that a certain “fact” is dubious.
We do make some allowance for statements made in live interviews, as opposed to a prepared text. We will judge more harshly statements from a prepared text, on the grounds that the politician and staff had time to discuss the statistic. We also make allowances if the politician or interest group acknowledges an error was made.
Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods. (You could view this as “mostly true.”)
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. (Similar to “half true.”)
Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions. This gets into the realm of “mostly false.” But it could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading. The line between Two and Three can be bit fuzzy and we do not award half-Pinocchios. So we strive to explain the factors that tipped us toward a Three.
Statements and claims that contain “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will be recognized with our prized Geppetto checkmark.
A statement that represents a clear but unacknowledged “flip-flop” from a previously-held position.
There are 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.
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.”