WaPo Fact Check columnist disputes fact-check of his fact-checking

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

This is getting seriously meta, folks. I got an email today from the Washington Post’s Fact Check columnist Glenn Kessler responding to my earlier earlier blog post: “Washington Post’s Fact Checker: Upon review, Obama’s welfare reform does undermine the work requirement.”

In other words, Kessler has fact-checked my fact-checking of his fact-checking, which was itself a revisit of his own earlier fact-checking. One  more round of this and we will start to look like an M.C. Escher carving.

Here’s what Kessler said via email:

Thanks, read your piece.

Two points I would make:

1. I look at each statement case by case. Just because the Clinton statement is misleading does not make the Romney ad correct. I focused on the words on the ad, specifically the claim about people not working and just getting a welfare check under “Obama’s plan.” That is too big a leap to make based on what has happened thus far. You never really address the fact that I was focused on the content of the ad, not whether Obama changed the welfare rules.  He clearly changed the rules, in ways that appear to have stretched the law–as i pointed out the first time I wrote on this.

2. You suggest I thought the issue was simple was the first time around. That’s not the case at all–I said it was quite complex. And you ignore the fact that I also dinged the Obama folks for their counterspin that Romney had sought the same kind of waiver as governor.  I pointedly said that neither side covered themselves with glory here.

When the I wrote about this the first time, I was suspicious enough of the 20 percent claim that I decided not to address it, but kept my ears open for an opening to delve into more fully. Clinton gave me that opportunity.


Regarding the first point, I respectfully disagree. The claim in the Romney ad is perhaps oversimplified but the clear thrust is that the administration has weakened the work requirements, which is a perfectly legitimate analysis.

Kessler writes: “He (Obama) clearly changed the rules, in ways that appear to have stretched the law–as i pointed out the first time I wrote on this.” Yes, but that column’s “stretching the law” part focused on whether the administration properly ran the changes past Congress. Otherwise the column leans towards the administration’s spin regarding the work requirement.

Yes, I focus on whether Obama changed the welfare rules, because that’s what is important. That’s what the debate is about and what needs clarifying. My argument was that by giving the original ad  “four Pinocchios” Kessler confused people into believing Obama hadn’t changed the work requirements at all. His current column appears to concede that the requirements were at least weakened.

Focusing microscopically on the wording of the Romney ad obscures that larger point. Kessler’s column helped a variety of spinners and pundits to argue that the administration hasn’t weakened the work requirements at all, which is itself false.

Kessler writes: “(I) kept my ears open for an opening to delve into (the issue) more fully. Clinton gave me that opportunity.” Umm, why not do that the first time? It might have prevented a lot of confusion over the changes to the welfare law.

As far as his latter point to me goes, Kessler did say in his original column, “This is a complex issue, and highly technical.” So my quip that he “didn’t give off the impression that he thought the issue was that complicated the first time around” wasn’t fair. Mea culpa, Mr. Kessler.

I ignored the fact he raised about the administration’s counterspin because I wasn’t disputing that and wanted to stay focused on the main point. (As it was, the blog post was already over 1,000 words.) For the record, I was not and am not accusing him of being biased, just wrong.

Getting back to the broader point of my column, the “fact check chorus” (for lack of a better term) of Kessler, Politifact and others have not had the effect of clarifying and broadening the public debate. Instead they have shrunken it, making it easier for pundits and pols to avoid delving into these issues.

Regarding that point Kessler hasn’t responded.


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