Glenn Kessler sucks and that’s a fact
July 2, 2019 5:33 PM   Subscribe

 
Some recent context:

@davidsirota
THINGS YOU CAN'T MAKE UP: WashPost "fact checker" @GlennKesslerWP criticizes @BernieSanders for saying 3 families control more wealth than the bottom 50% - Kessler says because the bottom 50% have no wealth at all, this is "not especially meaningful."

[Link to Washington Post]
“Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America”

—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)


This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up, but it’s also a question of comparing apples to oranges. Sanders is drawing on a 2017 report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, which said that three billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Warren Buffett — had total wealth of $248.5 billion, compared to $245 billion for the bottom 160 million of the United States. The wealth of the three men has gone up even more since then.

But people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful. We once gave Sanders Three Pinocchios when he asserted that the six wealthiest people had more wealth than the half of the world’s population. That was an even more problematic comparison, and we said at the time it was better to focus on inequality within a country.

posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:37 PM on July 2, 2019 [22 favorites]


Oh, and
“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)


Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job. But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And the “millions” of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent of workers are not working two or three jobs “just to survive,” making this a misleading statement.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:48 PM on July 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


Well, actually....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:53 PM on July 2, 2019 [19 favorites]


most of those extra jobs are part time

what.

ok, I wonder how I (and many other adjuncts) count in this, since i’m technically “part time” as an adjunct, and hold other part time jobs (because the 25 hours a week I am paid as an instructor is actually closer to 40+, so I don’t have time to work more than 15-25 hours at my second job) and I also wonder how to count other adjuncts working part time at 2-3 colleges and about all many other people who are holding multiple part time jobs and their work is somehow not counting as a “job” they “need” to “survive” ...
because also I don’t “need” to pay my student loans to “survive” (they are neither food nor shelter) but yet I keep foolishly paying them I guess? This is a mess.
posted by zinful at 6:05 PM on July 2, 2019 [14 favorites]


I liked Wonkette's take "True, but I Don't Like It." Make like an egg and beat it, Glenn.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 6:10 PM on July 2, 2019 [16 favorites]


Can we just say - another example of old white men telling us that we should know our place and be grateful.

Well called and analysed.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:11 PM on July 2, 2019 [11 favorites]


I certainly agree that the extant journalistic practice of fact checking sucks, but this content producer seems more upset by the existence of facts, or that people might care to know them? I mean, yeah, philosophically, sure, facts are very tricky, but they have shown themselves practically useful.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:20 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I liked Wonkette's take "True, but I Don't Like It." Make like an egg and beat it, Glenn.

Wonkette has had the weirdest journey, but I’m so glad it’s still here, doing things like this

(Christ remember the sloganator?)
posted by schadenfrau at 6:22 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Contrast the Sanders vitriol above with:
“I did not oppose busing in America.”
—Former vice president Joe Biden

Biden did oppose busing, though the issue is a bit complicated.

Biden’s spokesman, Bill Russo, recently told our colleague Matt Viser that the former vice president still believes he was right to oppose busing, and that he did so because he did not believe it was the best way to integrate schools
Nice of them to repeat Biden's apologia verbatim.
posted by benzenedream at 6:45 PM on July 2, 2019 [13 favorites]


That "well, sure, technically, but only because the least wealthy people have almost no wealth, so not really" thing has so far had remarkable staying power in its ability to freshly irritate me every time I think about it.
posted by Zed at 6:56 PM on July 2, 2019 [44 favorites]


"well, sure, technically, but only because the least wealthy people have almost no wealth, so not really"

So the problem is simply that 50% is a significant underestimate? What is this plonker on about?
posted by pompomtom at 7:31 PM on July 2, 2019 [9 favorites]




I AM SO GLAD PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT THIS. If fact-checkers really feel the need to introduce shades of gray, let them fall into the categories of basically true/it's complicated/bad faith or false. The most generous interpretation of most fact-checkers is that they're Charlie Brown with a football.
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:41 PM on July 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


“While technically true that Galactus eats more food than the entire human race, this is an apples to oranges situation because humans eat regular meals and Galactus eats planets. Earthlings have essentially no appetite compared to Galactus, so this comparison is not especially meaningful. We once gave the Fantastic Four a ‘pants on fire’ rating for describing Galactus as threatening, when in reality he held no animus toward Earth but was merely hungry for our planet. For this statement, we rate the Fantastic Four’s statement as a Pinocchio Heart-Stab Whopper, named after the well-known climactic moment in the original Pinocchio novel. (In this memorable scene, Pinocchio tells a lie so bad that his growing nose stabs Geppetto through his heart. With his last breath, Geppetto delivers a robust defense of thoughtful centrism before he symbolically dies on the middle of a golden fence.) In conclusion, hail Galactus, and we can only hope the Fantastic Four will choose to be more honest in the future.”
posted by compartment at 8:06 PM on July 2, 2019 [65 favorites]


It seems perverse to argue that it's meaningful to compare a billionaire with a person having the slightest positive net worth – say 1¢ – but meaningless to include someone with a correspondingly small debt. Surely the two paupers are economically similar to each other, far more so than they are to the billionaire. By extension, the same goes for any debtor: they're all people with some level of assets, even if that level is negative.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:39 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I certainly agree that the extant journalistic practice of fact checking sucks, but this content producer seems more upset by the existence of facts, or that people might care to know them? I mean, yeah, philosophically, sure, facts are very tricky, but they have shown themselves practically useful.

Could you elaborate on where you’re getting this from? The essay mentions in one paragraph that “verifiable facts” are a philosophically problematic concept, but that isn’t its central argument as far as I can see, and it goes so far as to say that
I take Kessler at his word when he says that his project attempts to match a statement against the reported facts, and with a few notable exceptions, I think he mostly does what he sets out to do.
The essay isn’t asking the question “what are facts”, but is instead asking “what political effect do ‘fact checkers’ have, as a phenomenon that has existed for the last 15 years or so?”
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:04 PM on July 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


The "comparing apples to oranges" thing drives me nuts because one of the defining features of currency is its fungibility. Like literally the reason humanity invented money is so that we could numerically compare things you couldn't otherwise.
posted by jcreigh at 9:32 PM on July 2, 2019 [20 favorites]


If I read the article as “don’t rely on fact checkers to change the nation’s politics” it makes sense, and I would agree. Doesn’t mean there’s not a place for fact checkers. The nice thing about their domain is that they can be fact checked as well. So the job demands honesty and transparency.

As soon as you leave the domain of Fact and head towards ideology, you get a bunch of people talking past each other. And good luck convincing anyone who isn’t already inclined to agree (unless you’re willing to prey on psychological weaknesses or the young).
posted by mantecol at 9:33 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, I would be completely sympathetic had the essay gone down the “what are facts” route instead. The project of “fact checking” politicians’ statements seems inherently doomed to me.

How would you fact check the following statements from a supposedly neutral point of view, and as a layman (Glenn Kessler is a professional journalist with qualifications in history and international affairs.):
  • God wants this country to succeed in its endeavors
  • My opponent’s plan is likely to lead to the collapse of the economy
  • A fetus is a human being and has rights
  • Had we not intervened in the economy, disaster would have occurred
  • This medical treatment does not provide sufficient benefits to justify its cost
  • Our country’s intelligence agencies were involved in a secret plot that runs contrary to our values
  • Despite my mixed voting record on the issue, I have always been very sympathetic to this cause
  • Privatisation of this public asset will cause it to be administered more effectively
  • A General like you wouldn’t believe, straight out of central casting, he came up to me just this morning and he said to me sir, I believe we should invade Iran
You’re obviously going to 1) bring your own prejudices and personal beliefs to the project and 2) in many cases (counter-factuals, predictions, anecdotes etc) there simply isn’t enough data to know definitively and 3) you’re going to have to rely on external authorities for even the simplest things.

Like, how many people are unemployed in your country, and how has this changed over time? Easy, huh. Just a google away. But which measure of unemployment is your country currently using? (The ILO recognises several.) How has this changed over time? Has the unemployment measure changed as well? Is employment a meaningful metric at all, or is quality of employment more important? What about access? What about benefits for those unemployed? How have salaries and benefits changed over time? Etc etc etc. If you speak to someone responsible for compiling labour statistics, it abruptly becomes more complicated. Everything does.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:36 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Since when does "technically" mean not true? Technically true is still true.

Also the one about jobs is so weird because it's taking as a given that part-time jobs aren't jobs, and therefore they're not taken just to survive which is doubly untrue. They are taken to survive and that isn't contained in the parameter of the quote and one doesn't equal the other. It's just a bunch of random nonsense intended to deceive.
posted by bleep at 9:38 PM on July 2, 2019 [9 favorites]




This is pretty much pointless pedantry, but while it's fair to say that almost any job is taken because it is needed to survive, it is true that a relatively small number of people take jobs not because they need the money, but because they want something to do. It is also strictly true that a greater proportion of part time jobs are worked by people in that kind of circumstance.

In both cases, the number of people to whom this applies is such an insignificant fraction of the whole that it is misleading to cite in any discussion not centered directly on that subset of people and can be dismissed as a bad faith argument on that basis. It's simply irrelevant to the broader social issues, much as most concerns of billionaires are. By definition the outliers cannot be the focus of wider issues without distorting the discussion to the benefit those outliers whose concerns are treated as more important than those of the broader population.
posted by wierdo at 10:47 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


How would you fact check the following statements from a supposedly neutral point of view, and as a layman (Glenn Kessler is a professional journalist with qualifications in history and international affairs.):

It's really interesting (and to me telling) that you don't include the in my opinion fairly obviously incorrect statements from Kessler on either wealth inequality or part time jobs in this list. I can in fact only make sense of this as a defense against the claim that Kessler isn't checking enough statements against evidence, which I don't understand anyone here to be making.
posted by PMdixon at 5:33 AM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


i'm glad im not the only one who nearly had an aneurysm when they heard about this "fact-check"
posted by entropicamericana at 6:44 AM on July 3, 2019


It's really interesting (and to me telling) that you don't include the in my opinion fairly obviously incorrect statements from Kessler on either wealth inequality or part time jobs in this list. I can in fact only make sense of this as a defense against the claim that Kessler isn't checking enough statements against evidence, which I don't understand anyone here to be making.

I'm sorry, I think you've misunderstood.

My comment is saying: even aside from obvious misrepresentations like Kessler's grudge against Bernie, and even aside from the unavoidable gatekeeping in choosing which "facts" to "check" (why isn't every day a 10,000 essay about all the nonsense that the president spouted?), the entire project is doomed from the outset because the world for the most part is not resolvable into two-paragraph conclusions that are understandable by a professional journalist.

Firstly, any conditional statement (X would have resulted in Y in the past; A will result in B in the future) is technically "misleading" in that, while these are normal and commonly understood language functions, the confidence with which they're stated is always unjustified, as there is never enough information to know for sure.

Whereas anecdotes or claims to secret information (a famous economist told me over dinner; our intelligence agencies have informed me) aren't misleading in the same way, but from the fact-checker's perspective, once again there is no way to know for sure, or even close to sure.

So that leaves us with matters of technical knowledge, just bare statements of fact (statistics say that the economy is doing well; scientists say that climate change is caused by humans). These are statements that normally pertain to extremely complex systems (society, the economy, the climate), systems that many people spend a lifetime studying. I think it would be presumptuous to say that Glenn Kessler has a unique insight into any one of these. So he has to rely on appeals to authority - how does he choose which authorities he relies on? (Note that even if he was an expert on one or more of these subject, the problem remains that he is not free of political or professional bias himself - he is not a completely neutral observer.)

At this point, (again - even overlooking the inherent gatekeeping and Kessler's personal flaws) I think it's safe to say that the whole project of unbiased fact-checking is impossible, and fact-checking as it exists is essentially editorialising.

So I see fact-checking as part of a long tradition of attempting to dress up editorial as a completely neutral and unbiased "voice from nowhere". I see it very much part of the same tradition as anonymous editorials from British broadsheets, attempting to give the authoritative last word on the issues of their day, or the anonymous authors of the Economist, which is a similar attempt to place the writers "outside of the issue".

Of course, it's impossible.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:40 AM on July 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry, I think you've misunderstood.


I have, and with the corrected understanding I agree with you.
posted by PMdixon at 8:54 AM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


By adhering to Pinocchios and Whoppers, Kessler is able to stop short of saying the L-word.

Not just misleading. Not merely false. A lie."...In April, Trump finally weighed in, answering a question about whether he knew about a payment to porn star Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, with a flat 'no.'

It’s now clear that the president’s statement was a lie..." (Kessler, August 22, 2018)

I suppose it's appropriate that an article condemning fact-checking doesn't worry too much about, you know, facts.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:19 AM on July 3, 2019


Plenty of good and valuable fact-checking going on out there, of course.

I've appreciated Daniel Dale's project of the past 3 yrs of fact checking everything Trump says. He does a good job. (Unless you're a Trump fan)

I'm sure people find stuff to debate on https://www.politifact.com/ as well but I tend to find it overall a good guide.
posted by taterpie at 10:03 AM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


wierdo, the statement in question was:
“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”


— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Kesssler acknowledges that “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job.”, but says the statement is misleading because that's not enough people to care about.

That's significantly more people than are living with AIDS in America; There are fewer than 8 million Native Americans.

The tyranny of the majority is a failure state of democracy, not something to strive for.
posted by thedward at 10:57 AM on July 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


Yes, it is misleading to dismiss Bernie's statement as false or misleading because there are a small number of people who take part time work for reasons other than economic necessity. (Which is the most fair distinction I can think of for this purpose)
posted by wierdo at 11:21 AM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


> This is pretty much pointless pedantry, but while it's fair to say that almost any job is taken because it is needed to survive, it is true that a relatively small number of people take jobs not because they need the money, but because they want something to do. It is also strictly true that a greater proportion of part time jobs are worked by people in that kind of circumstance.

In both cases, the number of people to whom this applies is such an insignificant fraction of the whole that it is misleading to cite in any discussion not centered directly on that subset of people and can be dismissed as a bad faith argument on that basis. It's simply irrelevant to the broader social issues, much as most concerns of billionaires are.


I don't think it's pointless pedantry at all. I'm a counterexample, I have two (sometimes three) regular seasonal part-time jobs in addition to my full-time salaried position, but my part-time jobs are basically ways for me to make a little extra cash doing things that I enjoy/find fulfilling anyway. I'm not rich; my "real" job is for a nonprofit, but I am certainly not working those extra jobs "just to survive."

On the other hand, what is meant by "part-time jobs?" In addition to instructors with multiple adjunct positions, there are people barely getting by on cobbled-together freelance/independent contractor/gig work in so many other fields, which the labor statistics undercount.

And is Mr. Kessler completely ignorant of the widespread practice in many industries (most famously retail) of limiting employee hours to below the threshold of full-time status to avoid paying health insurance benefits?

His fact-checking logic is completely bizarre, but it didn't need to be. It is indeed impossible to verify the absolute literal accuracy of Bernie's statement, because "just to survive" is subjective and somewhat hyperbolic. But Kessler could have at least taken a good-faith shot at it by calculating how many of those 8 million people working more than one job are below the poverty line or close to it.
posted by desuetude at 1:16 PM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Kesssler acknowledges that “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job.”, but says the statement is misleading because that's not enough people to care about.

8 million people is more than the population of the majority of states. Only twelve states have more than 8 million people. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_population
posted by srboisvert at 6:00 AM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


I don't know why I can't get with the program and stop thinking that the suffering of 8 million people is worth caring about. Must be something wrong with me.
posted by davejay at 5:24 PM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]




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