The Post’s Fact Checker Needs To Check His Arrogance And Show His Work

April 3, 2012

Big Journalism recently pointed out that two versions of a Washington Post Fact Checker item (with two different results, the second more favorable to Cass Sunstein) were placed in the public domain. In the era of new media, it didn't occur simply on some relatively obscure web page. Both items would be blasted out via email and whatever other real-time mechanisms the Post might use to circulate its content. I've confirmed that was the case for the first retracted item.

On March 27, Josh Hicks of the Washington Post's Fact Checker gave White House regulation czar Cass Sunstein one "Pinocchio" for his defense of the Obama administration's regulatory record. However, the same article, a day earlier, was far more critical of the administration, giving Sunstein a total of three Pinocchios.

A comparison of the two very disparate items, available here, reveals significant differences between the two items in both content and tone, the second giving Sunstein 1 Pinocchio, as opposed to 3 in the first item, while the language is also softer and more forgiving.

Gone are phrases such as "even that number doesn't clarify whose rules have a larger negative impact," when comparing the regulatory records of Obama and Bush. "Plenty reason to doubt," turns into, "He may be right." Also gone is, "they omit very important information about stretches of time that could put Bush on top." In other words, Sunstein's claims could well be an outright lie. But one wouldn't know that by reading the Fact Check that remains posted today. There's now a note at bottom that didn't appear to be there at the time of my original posting.

NOTE: Because of a technical glitch, an unedited version of this column appeared briefly on the web shortly after 6 am on March 26. Any differences between the unedited version and edited version were the result of discussions between Fact Checker editor Glenn Kessler and Josh Hicks, as part of the normal due diligence before any article is published.

Better late than never, perhaps, though that two individuals can confer, with the final result of a so called "Fact Check" differing so significantly weighs heavily in James Taranto's favor, when he pronounced the entire concept a fad in the Wall Street Journal, writing that they have little to do with an objective review of facts, at all.

The 'Fact Checking' Fad It's opinion journalism thinly disguised as straight reporting.

Finally, and unfortunately, the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler's public and private responses to my posting were so childishly condescending and self-important, it's worth pointing out, if only to highlight the arrogance many members of dead tree media seem to cling to in this, a New Media age. Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, touched on this in an item with which he linked in.

But wait, there’s more: Washington Post and the Rush Limbaugh Memory Hole. Now they don’t mention that Limbaugh lost “fewer than five” advertisers.

The Post — and other media folks — need to realize that this sort of change doesn’t go unnoticed. But I wonder if this means that the White House’s pressure on Kaplan, the cash-cow that keeps the Post afloat, is bearing fruit. More on that here. (Bumped).

Here is Glenn Kessler's initial response, openly via his Twitter account. I also posed some questions, provoking a more extended reply.

My questions to Kessler:

So, you base your rating on your editing, not information u know to be accurate? That's the reason for 3 to 1?  

Question if u don't mind. Did someone from OMB call the Post shortly after your item was posted?

Another Q, if u don't mind. Given significant diff in items. Would u call it an edit, or a re-write? Thank you.

Another Q. Thx in advance. Does a routine edit normally take 24 hours from final draft to posting?

To which Kessler responded, again, openly on Twitter:

"Fine questions but should have been asked BEFORE publication. That's the fair way to report information. yep, like i said I focus on big picture, not spelling. other people check that! …who reads web at that hour so held for the next day. I have been sitting on one column by Josh for 4 days. I'm busy! don't forget, I also write a full column every day. I had to take my mother to bus station. I finished by 6 pm but… this was NOT an extensive edit. Josh is a clean writer, so copyediting is not an issue. I focus on big picture stuff, not grammer(sic) This is fairly standard editing that I do. It was long in parts. I requested more reporting. We discussed key elements. Typical. Nope, no call (from OMB). I got out of the shower, looked at PC and freaked out a draft was posted. Pulled it down immediately to answer the questions: we had never had a discussion about the ratings. it was a draft. Dude, these are questions you pose BEFORE you run lazy, speculative articles. Next time, just call me before engaging in lazy speculation. Unedited copy posted briefly by mistake. End of story."

I took and still take exception to parts of Kessler's response – at the time pointing out that, as someone who values New Media, what he called laziness, I called transparency and preferred asking my questions openly via a Web posting, as opposed to a private call in this instance. As Kessler also sought out my personal blog, leaving a comment on an item not directed at him, I opted to email him, hoping to smooth things over a bit. Kessler:

Oh my, such a vast conspiracy theory! If you had simply bothered to contact me (as one other reporter did) he would have quickly discovered that an unedited version of Josh Hicks' column on regulations went live for about 20 minutes or so because of a technical glitch. We removed it as soon as I spotted the error.

Luckily, Josh is a clean writer and so having raw copy on the web was not a total embarrassment. But the final version did change, based on my editing and discussions between me and Josh, just like any article does. That’s how the sausage is made in our business.

For what it is worth, I gave President Obama four Pinocchios just days before Josh’s column appeared. I am sure the White House wishes it had the ability to pressure us. But we always listen to both sides of the story before making a ruling.

That is not your standard. Apparently you were afraid that your theory would fall apart if you simply acted like a real reporter and made a phone call to check the facts.

Glenn Kessler Fact Checker columnist and editor

Below is my email to Kessler, ensuring him I saw none of this as personal. From my perspective, it was just business as usual in New Media land.

Saw your blog comment. FTR I didn't suggest you were part of any conspiracy and that particular posting had nothing directly to do with you. Given your space, I doubt you'd have much reason to link my blog, or Breitbart content, though I assume you would if you did.

Also, I can't recall your ever sending me something you were hoping I might help disseminate in some manner. My point there was only directed at those who often seek out bloggers to pick up on their content. Eventually, it becomes apparent when that's a one way street. And while much blog content may not be much worth their picking up on, sometimes there are exceptions.

As for the actual item in question, you fact check pols, I sometimes fact check media. It isn't as if you don't have a more than ample platform from which to respond, if it ever came to that. Whatever the case may be, it certainly isn't personal for me.

While I won't share Kessler's entire response – cc'ing Josh Hicks – purely as a matter of protocol, I will point out that he informed me I "had no business running that item without first trying to call", that I "had absolutely no basis to speculate that there was any pressure from the White House" and that "a real '"fact check"' would have noted that "I am rather tough on the White House".

Kessler also related his "full" expectation of an update with "a full apology" for not contacting him, or for me to "simply kill the whole thing". He felt that my pointing out his ample platform was "totally lame," before calling me "reckless" and "truly shameless."

Realizing that it was April 1st, I simply responded with this.

I have to admit, you really had me going there for a minute, Glenn. Then I realized what day it was. This is an April Fools joke, right? lol What a cut up! I'm glad to see you take it so well.

After over eight years in New Media, it continues to amaze me that so many members of old media remain as clueless and as arrogant as they do. That one like Kessler who spends his days fact checking politicians would presume that no one should have the right to fact check him – and do it openly, in the manner they prefer – without first making a discreet phone call after the Post's error was broadcast out to a large number of people only makes it all the more bizarre. I would have thought Kessler's own presumed standards of ethical journalism would have compelled him to explain to readers the sigificant disparity between the two items, not to mention the major difference in the final verdict. Apparently not.

Evidently, such details simply aren't the business of the little people, aka readers, to know when it comes to dead tree media. That's likely an element in why it will one day indeed be dead. The phrase "stuck on stupid" comes to mind. Finally, as for Kessler's "fully" expected update, there you have it. As for any anticipated apology, I guess Glenn Kessler will just have to wait.

Maybe I'll get around to it on April Fools day next year, in honor of Glenn and now his toady Josh Hicks who, for some reason, decided to weigh in on Twitter yesterday, before I can only assume his Mother called him in. Maybe the street lights came on. Glenn Kessler appears to have summed him up pretty well, he isn't much for the big picture. I guess that's why Glenn has to rewrite his copy and significantly change his silly evaluations, only this time the presumeably incompetent Hicks shared them with the world, first. Man, I hate it when that happens!

via @Reporter_Hicks: This from a guy who didn't make one phone call before spewing misinformation. Courage and integrity, Dan.

via @DanRiehl Are they encouraging you to get out more, junior? Be careful, you might get hurt.

via @Reporter_Hicks: That stung, didn't it? Must have hit a nerve. Courage, integrity. Let's add professionalism.

via @DanRiehl Son, I dont know if the loafers ur Mamma sent u to DC in are pinching ur feet, or what. But u should chill. I already have a full response in draft form. And it ain't about apologizing. Come back on the W/E when I have time to play w/ you.

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