Newspaper “fact-checking” is a mostly unethical and misleading exercise in which media partisans use the format to call positions they differ with ideologically and politically “lies.” PolitiFact is well established as the worst and most biased of these features; Annenberg’s Factcheck.org is easily the best (but still shows its leftward bias), and somewhere in between is Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Factchecker.” Today’s installment of his periodic column shows that after many years at his job, he still doesn’t know what a lie is. Amazing.
This is not, or should not be, necessarily for a factchecker, as long as he sticks to checking facts, and not characterizing why the facts don’t jibe with a particular public figure’s public statements. PolitiFact’s specialty is making questionable interpretations of statistics and events, declaring them the revealed truth, and attacking anyone, usually a Republican, who has come to a different conclusion. To his credit, Kessler doesn’t do that very often. He is typically fair and objective in his research and presentation of facts. But the Post’s Factchecker uses the device of one to four little Pinocchio heads to indicate the seriousness of a factual misstatement, and as he should know, Pinocchio’s nose grew long when he lied. Even one Pinocchio indicates that Kessler believes he has proven that someone lied.
It seems a little late for Kessler to be mistaking opinions that he disagrees with, analyses of facts that reach different conclusions than he would, and obvious mistakes as lies. Kessler, who is should be in the business of checking facts but has chosen a gimmick that makes him conclude by accusing others of lying, is ethically obligated to know what a lie is: an intentional misstatement of fact that is designed and intended to deceive. He either doesn’t know that, which means he’s incompetent, or he does and misrepresents mistakes and opinions as lies, which means that he’s the liar. Whichever it is, this is ethically unacceptable for a “factchecker.”
The headline I am now looking at inside my Sunday Post says that Kessler is checking “Rubio’s claim that Bush would not have invaded Iraq.” Please note: that “claim” could not possibly be a lie. It is pure opinion. Kessler may think it is wrong, mistaken, foolish, or unwarranted, but there is no basis upon which he can rest the assertion that Rubio is lying. Rubio’s “claim” is at best a guess about what might have happened in the past under different circumstances, and that’s all it can be. Now, Rubio might be lying if he says he thinks Bush would have not invaded Iraq if he knew there were no WMDs if Rubio really thinks otherwise, but there is no way for Kessler to prove that or even assume it.
On the web version of the column I will link to here, the headline is different. There it says the Kessler is checking “Marco Rubio’s claim that President Bush said he would not have invaded Iraq.” That can be checked, sort of, as we don’t need a time machine and an alternate universe to do it.
The statement by Rubio in question came in this exchange with Charlie Rose:
Charlie Rose: “If you look at the Iraq war, after finding out there were no weapons of mass destruction, would you, if you knew that, have been in favor of the Iraqi invasion?”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “Well, not only would I not have been in favor of it. President Bush would not have been in favor of it, and he said so.”
Kessler examines the published opinions of President Bush in his autobiography, finding statements by the former President that express great regret about using flawed intelligence to make the decision to have the U.S. invade Iraq, as well as assertions that removing Saddam Hussein from power was an objective worthy of the invasion all by itself. Kessler’s conclusion:
“We can find no evidence to justify Rubio’s claim that former president Bush has said that he would not have invaded Iraq if he had known no weapons of mass destruction would have been found. Rather, he and most of his top aides have insisted that the invasion was still justified despite the failure to find such weapons.”
He then give Rubio four Pinocchios…
Sen. Rubio was, at most, mistaken. Personally, I don’t think he is mistaken about Bush not invading without certitude that Saddam was hiding WMDs. Whatever Bush may say now to save face, the invasion would have been politically untenable if it was known–and it could not be—that the WMD’s the Iraqi dictator was trying to make the world believe did exist in fact did not. Kessler, being fair, quotes Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer and other Bush aides to the effect that they also don’t think Bush would have invaded, and I agree with them.
As to Rubio’s statement that Bush said he would not have invaded, I know that’s not a lie. Why? Because I remember clearly reading a statement attributed to Bush before he published his memoirs in which he said that, and I have alluded to that statement on Ethics Alarms. Maybe I misread it; maybe the source was wrong, and maybe Kessler looked in the wrong places, but I know that I wasn’t lying when I wrote that Bush said he wouldn’t have invaded, and thus I know Rubio was almost certainly mistaken the same way I was, and maybe on the basis of the same report….if indeed we were mistaken.
Moreover, the fact that Bush still believes that the invasion was “justified”—I also believe that it was justified, with or without the WMDs—does not prove that he would or should have invaded. The United States has had justification to take military action many times when it chose not to do so. The Obama years alone show that, tragically. We would be justified in sending troops to Iraq right now to stop ISIS. We would have been justified in going into Syria, especially after the President’s magically vanishing “red line” was breached. Indeed, we would be justified in deporting every illegal immigrant; we would be justified in eliminating farm subsidies, ending funding to the United Nations, and ending trade with China. The fact that these and other measures might be justified does not mean they are wise, affordable, or politically feasible.
Does Glenn Kessler, after all these years, really not know the difference between a mistake, an opinion, and a lie? The evidence indicates that is the case, unless he has forgotten the story of Pinocchio.