Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Should Stick to Checking Facts [Edited for clarity]
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, wrote last evening:
The controversy over a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is an interesting example of how words and context matter. State Department officials reportedly tried to dissuade the embassy staffer who wrote it from posting it, but he did so anyway. Nuland’s comment on Thursday is clearly an effort to say that top State Department officials really did not like the statement.
We had noted on Thursday that the Cairo statement had many of the same elements of previous such statements, but in weaker form. Let’s take a closer look at the statement and why it appeared weak — and then also examine how it has been repeatedly mischaracterized by the Romney campaign as the tragedy in the Middle East unfolded.
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
— Embassy statement, issued 6 a.m. EST, some six hours before the attack.
What the statement got wrong:
1. Unbalanced: The language on freedom of speech is weak. It is never stated that this is a U.S. right. In fact, freedom of speech is only backhandedly mentioned in the context of people abusing the “universal” right of free speech. Indeed, the statement even seems to suggest that one’s right to free speech is limited when it comes to criticizing a religion.
Compare the language above with this 2006 statement during uproar over the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons: “Freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so.”
2. Mischosen: The reference to the Sept. 11 attacks seems gratuitous and even a little odd. The mention of the anniversary seems to demean it.
3. Not Clearly Comprehensible: The message fell flat and was misinterpreted. In the aftermath of the attack, some clearly thought the statement expressed sympathy for the attackers.
— The Romney campaign’s repeated errors on the Cairo embassy statement, Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, last evening [Formatting, boldface and italics his]
Wow. Where to begin?
Well, how about with Kessler’s assertion that the phrase “the universal right of free speech” is a weakerstatement than one than one that identifies the right of free expression as one that is mainly just ours? Pardon me, but doesn’t the phrase “the universal right of free speech” suggest that America views a belief that free speech is a basic human right rather than just one that is optional, country by country? I mean—to adopt Romney’s words—isn’t the issue American values, American principles? Presumably ones we don’t think should be limited just to America, even though we (some of us, anyway) well understand that we can’t force other countries to adopt that value?
Then there’s the odd request that we compare the language above with this 2006 statement during uproar over the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons. Which is hard to do unless we know whether the 2006 statement was issued by an embassy staff under duress and fearful of an imminent storming of its perimeters, or instead was issued by the State Department itself after days of angry Muslim protests in the Middle East.
And what’s with the claim that the “reference to the Sept. 11 attacks seems gratuitous and even a little odd. The mention of the anniversary seems to demean it”? Really? Is Kessler sure about that? He is, after all, supposed to be a fact checker.
But worst of all, I think, is his last assertion, the one in which he says that the message fell flat and “was misinterpreted. In the aftermath of the attack, some clearly thought the statement expressed sympathy for the attackers.” As a fact checker, he should have mentioned that the “some” who clearly thought the statement expressed sympathy for the attackers” were, y’know, Mitt Romney and other rightwing Republicans—all of whom presumably think that the embassy personnel have powers of clairvoyance. After all, the statement was made before the attacks occurred.
Kessler would, I’m sure, make a fine (rightwing?) opinion columnist. But the use of his Fact Checker column as thinly -veiled punditry is—how should I say this?—mischosen. Not to mention that some of his assertions of fact in that piece are downright bizarre.
I am pretty sure I agree with you here. But it would have helped me to understand your point better if it were clear at the start who was saying what.
Personally I think the Kessler essay is a pretty sorry example of literary criticism.. or maybe just the idiocy you commit yourself to when you try to spin a story to make your guy look good.
I agree with your sentiment as well. But maybe the concept of a fact checker is inherently flawed.
Perhaps media outlets should have Fact Checkers who are committed to “the facts” but to label them with what their liberal/conservative personal leanings are.
So the reader concerned with some idea of the facts can read both fact checker’s columns and come to a conclusion.
Hopefully a lot of the time the fact checkers will reach consensus over an issue. But sometimes we have to accept that there’s a disagreement over the context, rhetoric, and ultimately opinion of the issue.
Thus the reader will do a meta-meta analysis for him or herself.
But the world is just too complex, huh?
The bigger concern is that junior officials should not be issuing statements on behalf of this country without authorization.
Point well-taken, coberly. I just edited it to indicate at the outset that the several indented paragraphs are from Kessler’s piece.
Actually, they were issuing the statement on behalf of the embassy staff, and it’s exactly the type of thing that career Foreign Service officials do.
As for the larger point, rustbelt, I’d say it’s that we have a Republican nominee for president who has no clue to what career Foreign Service people do. Among other things ….
I have liked Kessler and defending him from time to time (and more often criticized more in sorrow than in anger expressing concern that he is damaging his reputation). No more.
You have proof that he is an opinion columnist. He’s decided that facts are boring or forgotten what they are. It’s a pity, because fact checking is important.
I think it is obvious that the problem is Ballance (c). When commenters noted that he had called out more Republican than Democratic false claims of fact, he said he would have to look more closely at Democrats (no link it’s from memory). Kessler clearly thinks that to be fair and balanced, he must claim that there is about as much falsehood coming from Democrats as Republicans.
Therefore he can’t stick to the facts which have a clear liberal bias.
I was just really surprised, Robert, at how casually he just turned that column into an opinion piece. I don’t think it’s even arguable that some of those comments were fact-checking.
I don’t think the problem was with what the “junior officials” said. I think the problem was with what Romney said.
There isn’t a damn thing wrong with what the jr officials said, and I really think it is impractical that every jr official in the country is going to have to check with the President before they respond to a developing situation.
I used to think you had some credibility, but I think you have reached a milestone here.
the concept of a “fact checker” is bogus.
While it is conceivable that someone — from mars — could establish a reputation for checking “facts,” the fact is that politically relevant facts are always subject to “eye of the beholder.”
And what I find particularly annoying about some fact checkers is that they don’t know a damn thing about Social Security, but they check the “facts” by asking the “non partisan experts” who are paid by Peterson directly or at one level removed.
No doubt they think they are getting “the facts.” But that is the problem.