Four Walter Mittys For WaPo Fact Checker

movie poster: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Glenn “Geppetto” Kessler In Repose

Poor Glenn Kessler. Ever since the last Presidential election (and probably before), it’s been clear he imagines himself some sort of fanciful righter of wrongs, some ultimate arbiter of not just truth but also human intention – what he, Glenn, has divined that people really meant to do, in their heart of hearts.

Simultaneously, it’s been equally clear that what Kessler is often in reality doing is simply substituting what he, in his own heart of hearts, wishes the subjects who come under his analysis, had done or said. Like more recently, when Kessler awarded President Obama his most-ignominious brickbat (the dreaded “Four Pinocchios,” essentially a cutesy way for saying Kessler thinks something a flat-out lie) for Obama having committed the crime of claiming he’d called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism, when Obama had actually said “act of terror.” The Horror™.

That last bit of (possibly mendacious?) dada from Kessler concerned the ongoing Republican silliness-fest that is the now eight-plus month series of hearings into the Benghazi attack. And – what do you know! – just today, we have the specter of yet another Benghazi-related ignominy from Kessler. This time, the Obama administration avoids the lowest rung; Kessler awards only three Pinocchios – though, given his willingness to award four for leaving “-ism” off a word, you’d think Kessler wouldn’t have had any problem assigning this “lie” the full four Pinocchios.

What has the Obama administration lied and deceived about this time, according to ol’ Gepppetto Kessler? This time, it’s concerning the recent dust-up over Republicans having provided inaccurate summaries to reporters of White House emails regarding the “messaging” over Benghazi that took place in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. If you’re not familiar with this bit of inside baseball…I don’t blame you. You can get a good overview of it here, from Jay Rosen, leading media critic/analyst.

Kessler, in his piece, takes issue with White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer having said several times after the altering of the summaries was revealed, that Republicans “doctored” them. Kessler, after reviewing all the facts he thinks pertinent, comes to the following conclusion:

But the reporters involved have indicated they were told by their sources that these were summaries, taken from notes of e-mails that could not be kept. The fact that slightly different versions of the e-mails were reported by different journalists suggests there were different note-takers as well. (emphasis added)

Yes. Each reporter present took slightly different notes. Yet the essential substance remains both remarkably clear and also consistent between reporters’ descriptions of what they were told the emails said. So, while the fact that reporters’ notes aren’t identical does prove that they were given summaries instead of verbatim text, what it does not, however, prove, is that the person giving those summaries was not both A) a Republican and B) giving inaccurate summaries that were intended to make the White House look complicit and culpable, when the actual text reveals it was not.

Yet that’s the very conclusion Kessler draws: that because the reporters who heard the summaries had what even Kessler called “slight differences” (note: not substantive differences) in how they characterized them, it proves that Pfeiffer’s claim that the emails were “doctored” is false – and possibly, Kessler subtly suggests, an attempt to smear Republicans and distract from….something? Kessler continues, extrapolating without basis that “Republicans would have been foolish to seriously doctor e-mails that the White House at any moment could have released.”

Yes, Glenn, that would indeed have been foolish. Yet politicians and elected officials often do foolish things, and merely observing that something would be foolish is also not evidence it isn’t exactly what happened. In fact, it is Walter Mitty-like fantasy to assume or suggest that it does constitute such evidence.

Kessler follows up this last piece of specious reasoning and non-evidence with this absolute corker:

Clearly, of course, Republicans would put their own spin on what the e-mails meant, as they did in the House report.

Right. Their own spin. Glenn Kessler is certainly old enough to remember (though he appears either not to care, or to have forgotten) that the concept of “spin” was originally introduced into the political lexicon with the phrase “spin doctor.” Someone who is spinning the news has always been assumed to have been “doctoring” it to best effect. On that basis alone, Kessler’s argument falls apart.

Rather than rest on what amounts to little more than argumentum ad dictionarium, though, the larger question Kessler’s words beg (and which he apparently misses) is that the entire concept of spin involves a spectrum of gray that goes all the way from simply stating things in the best possible light, through things like selectively choosing portions of quotes and leaving others out which would cause a reasonable person to change their mind about the substance, and all the way up to outright altering the facts of an issue in order to either avoid looking bad or to make an opponent look bad.

In fact, what Kessler is describing in the above quote is, roughly, what his own job concerns – or is supposed to, at any rate. Of course politicians and their spokespeople try to put their own actions and words in the best possible light, and those of their opponents in the worst. The entire reason for the existence of the job of fact-checker is to determine whether in doing so, said politicians and spokespeople have altered the facts to suit their agenda. That’s the line between mere PR and outright mendacity. The way Kessler frames it in this piece, it’s as if he considers that task – the one that literally defines his job description – unimportant or at least secondary to the question of whether reporters were honest about having received summaries. That is a separate question, and – at least in Jonathan Karl’s case, it’s clear he wasn’t honest (or at least wasn’t accurate) about whether what he wrote were verbatim from emails or from summaries.

However, if what Glenn Kessler wishes to do is render judgment on whether it’s fair for the White House to state the emails were “doctored” by Republicans, then he needs to address the question directly of whether that happened, and not simply  point out that reporters’ summaries were consistent with one another. The question is: were they consistent with the actual facts, with the emails themselves? And that question has already been answered in the negative. They were not. Kessler himself even admits in his piece that “[i]ndeed, for all the accusations that the White House deliberately changed the talking points, this e-mail comment from a CIA official would greatly undercut that claim: ‘The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns’.” (emphasis added)

Exactly. The emails show exactly what most reporters covering this mini-scandal show they do: that the White House attempted to coordinate so various spokespeople would be on the same page, but stayed out of the bureaucratic knife fight between State and the CIA, and certainly did not attempt to do what the GOP-provided summaries of portions of those emails tried to suggest: favor the concerns of State over other concerns.

So it’s anyone’s guess why Kessler could print such a thing in his own piece, then avoid any significant examination of or pronouncement about whether the summaries provided by Republicans were intentionally wrong, yet still come to the conclusion that Pfeiffer (and by extension, the entire Obama administration) deserve to be declared liars for saying the GOP provided inaccurate summaries that make the White House look bad. Kessler focuses on Pfeiffer’s use of the word “doctored,” yet he provides no evidence that – nor even any examination  of whether – the summaries were intentionally altered or merely an “oopsie” on the part of the GOP. Kessler’s “ruling” against Pfeiffer suggests that he believes the latter: that the GOP summaries just happened to result in the White House looking bad. Yet Kessler never examines the likelihood of this, nor presents any evidence to support this view. Readers are just supposed to take Kessler’s ruling on faith. Kessler concludes with:

The burden of proof lies with the accuser. Despite Pfeiffer’s claim of political skullduggery, we see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing…

It’s true enough that in a court of law, the burden of proof lies with the accuser. Yet even in a court of law, there are different standards of proof. In a capital case, the burden is indeed “beyond reasonable doubt,” but in almost all civil cases, it’s “preponderance of the evidence.” And despite the high-falutin’ language, Kessler’s column is not a court of law. Kessler also seems not to recognize his admonition regarding the burden of proof extends to himself as well.

In this case, the facts are that Republicans did indeed provide inaccurate summaries of White House emails to reporters, and those summaries did indeed make the White House look culpable for things they had not in fact done. That is, in fact, the very essence of “doctoring.” Unless you’re Glenn Kessler, apparently. But because Kessler apparently doesn’t like that most correct and most obvious conclusion, he wants to shift the burden of proof on Pfeiffer to holding him accountable for proving beyond reasonable doubt that Republicans wrote summaries of those emails which were intended to paint the White House in a bad light.

We rate Kessler’s “fact checking” four out of four Walter Mittys for obliviousness and substituting what he’d like to see happen for what did happen, while assiduously avoiding the actual facts.