The Washington Post’s “fact-checker,” Glenn Kessler, is famously bad at his job. He published wildly incorrect statistics on Medicare for All, issued a correction, then included those wildly incorrect statistics in future Medicare for All writeups. In a “fact-check” going after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion that Wal-Mart and Amazon cost taxpayers money by not paying their workers a living wage, Kessler presented statements from Amazon and Wal-Mart’s PR departments as statements of fact, and they helped form the basis of his flawed critique of AOC. It is incredibly difficult to look at Kessler’s work and not see him as an ideologue who protects the position of the rich and powerful at all costs—which brings us to today’s embarrassment of a “fact-check,” on this quote from Bernie Sanders:
“Not one major Wall Street executive went to jail for destroying our economy in 2008 as a result of their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior. No. They didn’t go to jail. They got a trillion-dollar bailout.”
Kessler says that Sanders’ language is “a bit slippery and exaggerated,” despite it being a provable fact—like gravity—that no major Wall Street executive went to jail in 2008. Kessler thinks he’s getting Bernie in a gotcha, by stating that one executive did: Kareem Serageldin, who was a global head of structured credit at Credit Suisse Group. But again, Bernie specified by saying “major” and Serageldin is not on the level of chief executives at titans like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, etc…These are the banks whose subprime mortgage derivative-laden balance sheets destroyed the economy in 2008. Those major institutions are why Congress passed the 2008 TARP bailout in the first place. Kessler begins his “fact-check” by ignoring the factual reality behind the word that Sanders’ assertion hinges on, before conceding that “Sanders’s larger point is valid.”
No, Bernie’s central point about “major Wall Street executives” is valid. Kessler frames this as a “larger point” because…I don’t know. Words don’t mean anything to WaPo’s chief facts knower I guess. No one covering Wall Street ever depicted Kareem Serageldin as anywhere close to being on the level of major folks like Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein because it would practically be a fireable offense to do so.
Either Kessler is completely unaware of how Wall Street works, or he’s very aware of what he is doing. Before he has even launched into his “fact-check,” he has semantically moved the terms of debate to something he invented, and not the factual matter of what Sanders said. This is exasperating, and I haven’t even reached the worst part of this “fact-check” yet. If you have a pillow nearby to scream into, I would recommend grabbing it now. Per the “facts” man:
But did Wall Street get a $1 trillion bailout? That’s a nice round number for rhetorical purposes, but it’s not borne out by the facts.
One of the reports on the Federal Reserve that Jones shared, from the Government Accountability Office in 2011, stated: “Loans outstanding for the emergency programs peaked at more than $1 trillion in late 2008.”
Kessler gives Sanders’ claim two Pinocchios (how anyone can take a fact-check with a grading system like that seriously is beyond me), despite presenting evidence from the Government Accountability Office that proves Sanders right (the GAO does exactly what it sounds like: studies the rest of the government so as to hold it accountable). Bernie’s team also provided Kessler with additional studies and reports demonstrating that the 2008 Wall Street bailout amounted to anywhere between $7.7 trillion and $29 trillion. Kessler responded with “The wide range of these estimates suggests that they should be viewed with skepticism.” Here’s Bernie’s Staff Director coming for Kessler with receipts (note the source in the graphic on the first tweet).
Sure, it’s hard to pin down an exact figure, but given that they both are significantly more than $1 trillion, I’m not sure how Kessler thinks that this is helping him to refute Bernie’s initial “trillion-dollar bailout” claim. But again, anyone familiar with Kessler’s work is well-aware of this trick by now. He rhetorically shifts the terms of the debate to his interpretation of a quote, and not, you know, the facts that the words in the quote bear out.
Now, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke did push back very strongly against Bloomberg’s $7.77 trillion figure in 2011, saying that the reports contained “egregious errors and mistakes.” Kessler presented Bernanke’s quote as “The Federal Reserve at the time said the reports were ‘wildly inaccurate.’”
In response to Bernanke, Matthew Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News said “Bloomberg stands by its reporting” and published an open letter, saying he “welcome[d] Bernanke’s complaints.” Bloomberg also released an itemized list of rebuttals explaining why they were pushing back on Bernanke’s assertion—yet none of these facts made it into Kessler’s “reporting.”
So just to recap Kessler’s position: when Bernie Sanders cites the Government Accountability Office, that is something that can be dismissed with additional evidence from less unbiased sources, but Ben Bernanke’s quote equals the stance of the entire Federal Reserve and ohbytheway we don’t need to include the fact that the reputable news outlet that Bernanke pushed back against stood by their reporting and responded with specific rebuttals to Ben Bernanke (not the “Federal Reserve”).
This is awful journalism. The Washington Post is overflowing with great journalists and journalism, and speaking as someone whose job it is to cover major media, I would assert that they are the best mainstream outlet. That said, Kessler’s columns actively hurt their reputation. He messes up plenty of “fact-checks” on liberal and leftist quotes and policies, consistently falling short of the incredibly high bar that the fact of the word “fact” creates (tip for young journalists who don’t want to wind up becoming a self-parody like Kessler: don’t call it a fact unless you’re willing to risk your livelihood on it being a fact). If WaPo is determined to keep Kessler’s “fact-check” column alive despite his consistent comedy of errors, they should stop calling his posts “fact-checks” and instead name them something more factually accurate, like “distortions of reality falsely presented as facts which consistently support the position of the ruling class.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.