Fact checking the fact-checkers

PinocchioFor the most part I’m glad that high-profile fact-checking has become a thing, and most of the time I think places like Snopes and the Washington Post fact checker do a good job.

But there are times when I think they go a bit off the rails.

Not surprisingly, many of the fact-checks that bother me are ones that criticize politicians I’m sympathetic with, so I need to consider the possibility that my biases are coming into play. But at the end of the day, I usually have reasons for my complaints. So let’s look at some.

Today Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact checker, gave Adam Schiff “Four Pinocchios” for saying, “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower”

The facts of the matter are that the whistleblower reached out to a member of Schiff’s staff to ask about how to go about communicating potential wrongdoing to the committee. The staff member got no details and told the whistleblower to get a lawyer and submit an official whistleblower complaint to the inspector general.

Schiff was given only a vague account, so he knew that there was a complaint, and it probably had something to do with the White House. But no more. He didn’t know who the whistleblower was. He didn’t know what the complaint was about.

Now, here’s the exchange that Kessler awarded four Pinoccios:

Stein: “Have you heard from the whistleblower? Do you want to hear from the whistleblower? What protections could you provide to the whistleblower?” .

Schiff: “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to. But I am sure the whistleblower has concerns that he has not been advised, as the law requires, by the inspector general or the director of national Intelligence just how he is supposed to communicate with Congress, and so the risk to the whistleblower is retaliation.”

Kessler says, “This is flat-out false.”

I think that’s a bit too strong.

I don’t want to get all, “It depends on who ‘we’ is supposed to be” – but, well, it depends on who ‘we’ is supposed to be, and what it means to “speak directly” with someone, and what exactly the question is trying to get at.

When I hear the question to Schiff, I think he’s asking whether members of the committee have gotten a phone call from the whistleblower, talking about who she or he is, or whether/when he or she might come in to testify, or something along those lines.

And Schiff hasn’t. He couldn’t know for sure that the current whistleblower is the same one that he heard vaguely about earlier. And even if it were, it’s not like the earlier vague interaction between the whistleblower and Shiff’s aide involved the sort of information that you have in mind when you talk about “speaking directly” to someone – and the specific context of the question is about the committee arranging for the whistleblower to testify before them.

So, yes, it would have been more accurate for Schiff to say, “We think that it might be the same person who reached out to one of my aides earlier to ask about how to file a whistleblower complaint, but we can’t be sure . . . and since then we have had no direct communications with him or her, and we don’t know who he or she is, and we haven’t spoken to him or her about how to come in and offer us testimony.”

But I think “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower” is not that far off.

The Pinoccio scale guide simply tells us that Four Pinoccios mean “whoppers.” It’s their rating for the most egregious lies (except for “bottomless Pinocchios” which they invented to account for Trump).

It’s worse than Three Pinocchios, which is awarded for “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions. This gets into the realm of “mostly false.” But it could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading.”

It seems to me that in the context of the question Schiff may have thought his answer was completely accurate. I’m not convinced that the possible earlier indirect contact would have reasonably come to mind when someone is thinking about whether the particular person who wrote the complaint and was contacting them through his or her attorney.

So One Pinocchio, fine. Even Two, I don’t complain. But Four?

I mean, let’s compare this to pretty much any of Trump’s comments, on pretty much any day. Here’s one that caught my ear yesterday:

It just happened. As I’m walking up here, they handed it to me. And I said to Mike — I said, “Whoa, that’s something. That’s big stuff.” That’s a big story. He knew long before, and he helped write it, too.

Trump is falsely claiming that Schiff helped write the whistleblower complaint. And he isn’t even hiding the fact that he just made it up out of thin air. He just heard the report as he was walking up, and somehow he knows “he helped write it.”

It’s false. It’s crazy. If Schiff’s slip is Four Pinocchios, what the heck is Trump’s claim? Glue-sniffing Pinocchio?

Now, just to show that I’m rational and impartial, let me say that I also think that the WaPo fact checker (Rizzo, this time) also over-reaches in awarding Four Pinocchios to Mike Pompeo for dodging questions about whether he knew about the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call (which, it turned out, he was listening to in real time).

Raddatz: “And I want to turn to this whistleblower complaint . . . What do you know about those conversations?”

Pompeo: “So, you just gave me a report about a I.C. whistleblower complaint, none of which I’ve seen.”

Now, obviously he didn’t answer the question (honestly). His actual answer may or may not have been true, but that’s not the basis for the Four Pinocchios. It’s the dodge.

But it seems to me that this is pretty standard politician-doesn’t-want-to-answer-question-so-answers-different-question move. He managed to not say anything false. I say One or Two Pinocchios.

Indeed, it seems to me like maybe the Four Pinocchios for Schiff are meant to counterbalance the Four Pinocchos for Pompeo, if they think they overstepped there and want to appear “fair and balanced.” Misrepresenting the severity of Schiff’s misstatement is pretty serious though, because it’s bolstering even more lies from Trump and his followers.

One response to “Fact checking the fact-checkers

  1. I agree with you. I do think WaPo went wrong on that one.

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