Beltway Confidential

Post’s Fact Checker indulges Obama on Keystone comments

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Analysis

You’d think it would be fairly easy for Washington Post fact check columnist Glenn Kessler to render a judgment on a politician’s claims when they involve numbers that can be checked. Yet somehow Kessler’s Sunday column manages to find ambiguity in a recent jobs number claim by President Obama.

The column focuses on comments Obama made to the New York Times on July 24 about the estimated number of jobs the Keystone XL pipeline project would create. As Kessler notes, the number he cites is directly contracted by the State Department’s own March estimate. Yet he grades Obama’s comments as if they were a half-truth, giving it “two Pinocchios.”

Kessler has an odd habit of doing this type of thing. As the Washington Examiner has previously documented, he typically does an excellent job researching the background and context of a politician’s claims — and then inexplicably assigns a grade that is not backed up by his own reporting. (Kessler has, to his credit, been a good sport about the Examiner‘s past criticisms of him.)

The print version of Kessler’s column apparently isn’t online. An earlier version was posted on July 30. It focuses on this claim by Obama:

My hope would be that any reporter who is looking at the facts would take the time to confirm that the most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline — which might take a year or two.

As Kessler points out, the State Department’s estimate for the jobs the project would create is 3,900 over a one- to two-year period. That is just the number directly employed in pipeline construction. The report estimated the total number of jobs directly and indirectly created over that period at 42,100.

“This employment would potentially translate to approximately $2.05 billion in earnings,” the report noted.

The caveat here is that Obama may not have been referring to the State Department report, but an estimate by an outside group. But if that was the case, the White House declined to clear up the matter when the Kessler asked it directly. (Obama himself never said what his source was. If he thinks the State Department report was wrong, he should just say so.)

That being the case, Kessler treats the State Department report as the relevant source. So Obama gave a figure that was — at best — just a half of what the report said. Here’s how the Post’s columnist grades this:

Perhaps he is tipping his hand on what he secretly thinks of the Keystone XL by citing a low-ball figure, generated by the pipeline’s opponents, but he should stick to using the official government estimate. Otherwise, the president ironically seems to be signaling that even his own government does not produce the “most realistic” estimate that should be used by reporters. He earns two Pinocchios.

Yes, well, instead of grading what the president may or may not have been “ironically signaling” perhaps a  fact check column should grade what he actually said. Absent any clarification from the White House, the numbers Obama gave are clearly contradicted by the figures his own administration has produced.  How is this not a “four Pinocchios” situation?

This made even more baffling by the fact that Kessler also notes that his colleagues at Politifact rated Obama’s statements as “false,” as did the Associated Press. By effectively rating Obama’s comment as a half-truth he is giving the president the unearned benefit of the doubt.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner