In the latest iteration of the School of Journalism’s “My Life As…” series, Glenn Kessler, author of The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog, spoke about the importance of fact checking in today’s political climate.
“We have someone who has been, for the past thirty years, an incredibly accomplished reporter,” Howard Schneider, dean of the School of Journalism, said as he introduced Kessler on March 9 in the Student Activities Center Sidney Gelber Auditorium. “He is one of the most persistent, careful, thoughtful, dogged — almost obsessive reporters that I have run across.”
In a career spanning more than 30 years, Kessler has worked in high-level positions for publications such as Newsday and The Washington Post. He has served as a White House correspondent, traveled as a reporter with three secretaries of state and shared in two Pulitzer Prizes for spot reporting.
“But all of that,” Schneider joked, “all of that didn’t not get him on The Daily Show.”
Kessler’s recent notoriety has stemmed from his Fact Checker blog for The Washington Post, which was started six years ago. Kessler explained that his desire to assess the truthfulness of statements stemmed from his work as a chief political correspondent for Newsday during the 1996 presidential election between President Bill Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole.
“I was often frustrated that there was very little space in my stories to explain that Clinton and Dole were often stretching the truth and making false claims,” Kessler said. “My articles had to fit in a defined space in the newspaper, and often the first thing that was trimmed by the editors was an explanatory paragraph that one candidate or the other was not really telling the truth.”
Kessler credited Newsday for being one of the early pioneers of political fact-checking, allowing him to write a long-form article debunking many of the statements made by both candidates on the campaign trail leading up to the first presidential debate.
“My theory was that the campaign speeches had been the equivalent of Off-Broadway tryouts,” Kessler said. “That during the debates, the candidates would rely on the same false talking points that had succeeded with audiences on the road. Readers loved it. It turned out there was a real interest in finding out whether or not politicians were telling the truth.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism professor Irene Virag said she respects Kessler’s work as a political fact checker but does not envy his position.
“I have great admiration for what Glenn does,” Virag said. “He fulfills a great service for the public. He does a remarkable job. Like a lot of jobs, I’m grateful that there’s somebody like him to do it, and I’m grateful that somebody isn’t me.”
Both during his speech and his subsequent conversation with journalism professor Jonathan Friedman, Kessler stressed the notion that objective truth is not as black and white as one might expect. Especially in the case of political figures, Kessler said many statements are not so much blatant lies as they are the product of spin and selective wording, manipulating information to maximize political advantage.
This nuanced idea of truthfulness helped lead to Fact Checker’s system for rating the statements of political figures, in which each statement is given between one and four Pinocchios if it is found to be factually unsound — or a Geppetto in the rare instance of truth-telling.
After explaining his methods, which he admitted are unscientific and something of a marketing gimmick, Kessler joked that much of what Trump says could be considered the highest level of factual inaccuracy.
“I have never encountered a politician so cavalier about the facts as Donald Trump,” Kessler said. “Now just about every politician earns a four Pinocchio ruling at some point, but it’s maybe one or two times out of every 10 rulings. For instance, Hillary Clinton earned four Pinocchios 15 percent of the time. Donald Trump, by contrast, earned four Pinocchio ratings 65 percent of the time during the presidential campaign.”
Kessler’s reporting on Trump’s record as president has shown his penchant for fibbing remains unchanged, citing Trump’s false unemployment statistics and claims on the voting of illegal immigrants in the 2016 election, among many others. According to the “100 days of Trump claims” page on The Washington Post’s website, in the 50 days since Trump took office, he has made a total of 219 false or misleading claims.
“Even more astonishing, after Trump has been proven wrong, he goes out and repeatedly makes the same false claims over and over again,” Kessler said. “Most politicians will just quietly drop a false talking point.”
While Kessler’s blog has extensively covered the statements coming from the White House during the first 100 days of the Trump administration, he emphasized the nonpartisan nature of his job, citing numerous false claims made by the left as well.
“As a journalist, I am trained to let the facts lead the way,” Kessler said. “Politicians are going to do what politicians are going to do, my goal is to inform voters. It’s the facts that matter, not the politics.”
Most gratifying of all to Kessler — besides the thrill of the hunt for truth — is the movement that his lifelong push for fact checking has begun to spawn. In the six years since the founding of the Fact Checker blog, more than 100 individual fact checking organizations have sprung up all around the world.
Ultimately, Kessler’s message for the evening was directed at those in the audience who have lost hope that the truth holds any consequence in politics.
“I think Trump’s lying is hurting him,” Kessler said. “He’ll have trouble maintaining credibility going forward, and he’ll find that politicians on both sides won’t stand to be lied to. Ultimately, the truth comes out, and it comes back to bite you.”