Glenn Kessler and the Neverending End of 'Fact-Checking'

J.K. Trotter
February 13, 2013

Here we go again. On Wednesday morning, Washington Post Pinocchio-doler Glenn Kessler published a "fact-check" of President Obama's State of the Union address that refutes no facts and, instead, focuses on the context of certain statistics and figures. In a characteristic passage, Kessler writes, "The president is cherry-picking a number that puts the improvement in the economy in the best possible light." Well, alright. In other words, Kessler is no longer seeking to check figures but scrutinize rhetoric and spin. He even admits, "A State of the Union address ... is a product of many hands and is carefully vetted, so major errors of fact are relatively rare." So what is the point of this exercise, exactly?

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Witness the reactions thus far:

A good example this terrible trend for pseudo-fact check columns that don't actually check facts:… (via @moorehn)

— Tom Gara (@tomgara) February 13, 2013

Glenn Kessler's fact check the SOTU doesn't identify any factual errors.…

— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) February 13, 2013

@tomgara I am surprised by the tone, maybe. The SOTU didn’t really have mistakes.

— Heidi N. Moore (@moorehn) February 13, 2013

Really don't understand what's going on in this WaPo fact-checking

— Daniel Gross (@grossdm) February 13, 2013

We've walked down this path before. During the campaign leading up to the 2012 election, scores of fact-checkers moved beyond investigating candidates' statements and into the murkier territory of how those statements are phrased. This culminated in the debate over an attack ad, funded by Mitt Romney supporters, that said Jeep was "thinking of moving all production to China." One Penn professor deemed that ad "literally accurate" yet "inferentially false." On Election Day, David Carr at The New York Times wrote an obituary of sorts: "Fact checking, as it turns out, is more of a cottage industry than a civic corrective."

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Now, criticism of tone or context is not pointless. Kessler is probably performing a useful service by noting which improvements should be attributed to historical or economic trends beyond Obama's control. But fact-checkers like Kessler were never originally supposed to be pundits, were they? Aren't they supposed to figure out which policies might actually work, as opposed to whose advantage they work for? Not as much as they used to, apparently.