Glenn Kessler's Shameless Lie


In which I chronicle my conversion to binary thinking, maximal indignation, and zero-tolerance for "nuance," civility," or the pretensions of "fact checking."

The other day I said I thought Paul Ryan's convention speech was politics as usual--evasions and misdirections rather than outright lies. Once, I'd have said the same thing about Romney's speech too. I've changed my mind. I'm convinced that Republicans have crossed a line and are trashing the reputation politicians previously had for honesty and plain speaking. People are angry about this and I see now they're right to be. From here on it's zero tolerance for dishonesty wherever I see it. And I promise to amp up the indignation.

So I've got just one thing to say about Glenn Kessler. Fire his ass.

Of course I could criticize Kessler without calling him the filthy liar that he is. You know, exercise a little "restraint". On the one hand, on the other hand, all that crap. But leading scholars have taught us that in politics things aren't complicated, and when somebody builds a career on a lie, we need to say so. I try to be fair, God knows I try. Like Ezra Klein (what would we do without that impartial authority?) I strive to do justice to both sides. But here's the thing. At some point, you can be fair, or you can seem to be fair, but not both.

Kessler's foundational lie--the stinking lie on which his whole corrupt operation is based--is that he's "fact-checking". Untrue!

Last week the purported Fact Checker went so far as to pre-check the speech he thought Romney would probably give to the convention. Here he is, referencing a Romney ad:

"President Obama gutted welfare reform. My plan for a stronger middle class will put work back in welfare."

This highly inaccurate Four Pinocchio claim is at the center of what the Romney campaign considers its most effective ad. At issue is a memo issued in July by the Department of Health and Human Services, encouraging states to consider "new, more effective ways" of meeting employment goals. As part of that, the HHS Secretary would consider issuing waivers to states concerning worker participation targets.

The administration's move was a surprise, though it claims it reacted in response to requests from both Democratic and Republican governors. Even supporters suggest that the administration violated the spirit of the law, but no waivers have been issued and Obama has taken no action to weaken work requirements. Romney is asserting an extreme interpretation of what might happen under these rules.

Of course the sentences in bold are misleading, and for the reasons Kessler says, but let's not be distracted by any such split-the difference bullshit. The point is, Kessler isn't confining himself to checking facts, he's contesting one interpretation of the facts with his own interpretation. Whatever the merits of the rival interpretations, that's not fact-checking, it's commentary. Kessler himself says, "Romney is asserting an extreme interpretation of what might happen..." See? Guilty. An interpretation is an opinion--not a fact.

Some of you may find that distinction hard to grasp. It's Two Spocks difficult. Paul Krugman helped me see that people are divided into three groups: the ones who know I'm right (I call these "excellent"), fools and knaves. Possibly, you're a fool, so let me spell it out for you. When a fact is wrong, it's not some number of Pinocchios, it's just wrong.

All you sniveling false-balance types, you know what you can do with your middle way. Mickey Kaus, screw your efforts to look at the welfare controversy more "carefully". Don't bore me with your "nuanced" examination of Kessler and his ilk. That's all beside the point.

All you need to know is this. Kessler's just another pundit. By calling himself The Fact-Checker he claims the superior authority derived from the special property of a fact--that it's capable of being simply true or false. To do this is a Very Great Lie. I'm not exaggerating when I say it violates every canon of civilization. Angry? You bet I'm angry. I'm crying tears of rage right now. We don't tolerate people who torture small children and we shouldn't tolerate atrocities like this. I can't think of a penalty too severe.

I know Kessler's a pretty good pundit--I never denied it. So what if he digs into things and his commentaries are smart. And I know calling him a brazen liar and wishing him to be set upon by ravening dogs isn't going to open any channels of communication between us. Good. That's just how I want it. You can be "civil" and have your nice debates, and that's all fine and dandy if you want to be a filthy traitor in the war of ideas. But when you engage with liars, you validate their lies--lies, lies, lies--and you're no better than they are.

Fire his ass.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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