There is a growing backlash against the sect of journalism that calls itself “fact-checking,”—not fact-checking in the traditional sense where unsung heroes scan writers’ pieces for landmines that could undermine their argument—but the public-facing entities who portray themselves as Very Serious People above the fray of politics who are only interested in presenting “facts” to their readers.
The problem is that on the whole, this profession does not hold itself to the extremely high standard that the word “fact” demands. Last year, Jake Tapper and CNN’s fact-checkers joined WaPo and Politifact in saying that while it is true that a Koch brothers-funded outfit graded Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan and found that it would save $2 trillion over the current system, Bernie was supposedly wrong to say so because the author of the study said he did not believe the numbers that the study produced. Confirming that people said things is not the same kind of fact as those things being true, and that ordeal (that is still going on to this day) is a perfect demonstration of how the word “fact” is very malleable when it comes to the public-facing industry that is “fact-checking.”
Which brings me to the worst fact-checker of the bunch: WaPo’s Glenn Kessler. While my issue with the Bernie “fact-check” is a semantic one (I would call their fact-check a “who said what” check), Kessler just straight gets things wrong all the time. He famously made a huge mistake in his Medicare for All write-up, corrected it, then went on to make that same mistake in future Medicare for All write-ups.
Today, he's out with a new “fact-check” on a legitimately misleading Kamala Harris tweet.
As we have explained before, any broad-based tax cut is going to mostly benefit the wealthy because they already pay a large share of income taxes. According to Treasury Department data, the top 20 percent of income earners paid 95.2 percent of individual income taxes in 2017. The top 10 percent paid 81 percent. The top 0.1 percent paid an astonishing 24.1 percent of taxes.
A “broad-based income tax cut” could mostly benefit the wealthy since the wealthy pay the majority of income taxes, but there are far more kinds of taxes than just income taxes, and it's frankly startling that WaPo's chief facts knower immediately conflates “broad-based tax cuts” with “income taxes.” This paragraph demonstrates a staggering lack of understanding of how taxation works in America. Not to mention, the notion that you can't cut taxes without helping the rich is basically the exact same point that Trump's former top economic advisor, former Co-Chief Operating Officer of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, made in 2017 when he said that with the Trump tax cuts: “it's not our intention to give the wealthy a tax cut…if someone's getting a tax cut, I'm not upset that they're getting a tax cut.”
There are also sales taxes, property taxes, estate taxes, etc…and incorporating those into a tax plan may not benefit the wealthy (not to mention, you could still do an income tax cut for everyone making less than $420,000 per year—AKA the 99%—which I would assert is a “broad-based tax cut”). Elizabeth Warren's 2% tax on assets over $50 million and 3% on assets over $1 billion sure as hell won't affect you or me but preventing its enactment is basically why Howard Schultz is running for president. Kessler is right about broad tax cuts largely benefiting the rich, but only if you assume the only taxes that we pay are very specific kinds of income taxes.
That error is bad enough, but this next sentence is the perfect example of how fact-checkers like Kessler pretend to not have an ideology, yet make explicit ideological points while presenting them as facts. For example, here is Kessler again parroting Gary Cohn while presenting something he asserts is a “fact:”
If the wealthy end up with more money because they pay more in taxes, that's not necessarily a fair way to look at tax legislation.
That is a line that the Republican Party and their bootlicking allies in congress have been pushing my entire life in order to justify lowering taxes (on the wealthy) at every turn. While the initial tweet that Kamala Harris sent out was misleading, and Kessler was right to point out that she “presented these facts without nuance or qualification, making it appear as though the smaller tax refunds were evidence of a tax hike on the middle class,” parroting longstanding GOP talking points while citing the libertarian Cato Institute (who never met a tax they didn't hate) isn't a “fact-check.”
The word “fact” is the highest bar in all of journalism. An easy rule of thumb for journalists is this: if you are not willing to bet your life on something, don't call it a fact. What Glenn Kessler and other public-facing fact-checkers like him do is parrot centrist talking points and dress them up as “facts,” while portraying themselves as Very Serious People above the fray of politics. Two things to keep in mind are (1) that centrism is in fact an ideology that has the capability to be wrong just like any other ideology, and (2) centrists are nowhere near as ubiquitous as Very Serious People in major media like Glenn Kessler make it seem (they're the bottom right quadrant).
Don’t let self-styled Very Serious People who spend their days parroting the talking points of the wealthiest Americans gaslight you into thinking that being economically liberal is silly or that your beliefs are unrealistic. This country, by-and-large, is economically liberal, and people like Kessler are the outlier. While Kessler was right to call out Kamala Harris’ tweet for being misleading, yet again, the ideological Very Serious process he adheres to betrayed the serious factual argument that he was making.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.