Glenn Kessler defends his use of the Neil Newhouse quotation

WaPo Fact CheckerEarly on Dec. 31, 2014 we published a critique of the way the three major mainstream fact checkers, FactCheck.org, the Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact, used a 2012 quotation from Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse.

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post Fact Checker, didn’t waste much time in responding. That’s one thing we absolutely love about the guy.

On Twitter, Kessler pointed out a major mistake we made on a minor point (we updated our article promptly). He also made a defense of his use of the Newhouse quotation.

Newhouse said “We won’t allow fact checkers to dictate our campaign.” Our article noted that Newhouse wasn’t saying that it was okay to run untruthful ads. He was saying fact checkers do their business poorly. We faulted the three fact checkers, Kessler included, for taking Newhouse’s statement out of context.

Kessler offered this defense:

 

We pointed out in a Twitter response that Kessler did not provide the full context. This is the full context:

[Ashley] O’Connor said she thought their ad “Right Choice”  attacking Obama on welfare reform has been the most effective so far, despite its being given “Four Pinnochios” by a Washington Post fact check.
Newhouse brushed off the fact check as par for the course in political campaigns.

“People are always going to get Pinocchios for this stuff,” Newhouse said. “We stand behind those ads and behind the facts in those ads.”

Newhouse suggested the problem was with the fact-checkers, not the facts themselves: “Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs and you know what? We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

 

Kessler presented the quotation to his readers like this:

There has been no dispute among fact checkers on this question, with PolitiFact awarding the claim “Pants on Fire” and FactCheck.org also saying it was incorrect. Interestingly, Romney pollster Neal Newhouse dismissed the complaints of fact-checking organizations after a Romney ad executive said that an ad based on this assertion was “our most effective ad.”

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he told BuzzFeed.

 

What’s interesting about Newhouse defending the welfare ad after it was mentioned that Kessler gave it four “Pinochios,” if not for its status as the most effective ad? Kessler’s version omits the first two sentences ABC News recorded from Newhouse and includes the unnecessary detail about “our most effective ad.” Kessler added to his defense on Twitter:


We believe Kessler works from the same ABC News account of Newhouse’s statement we do. The report makes no mention of any question directed at Newhouse. Kessler’s version of events in his story is correct but misleading. Yes, Newhouse made his comments after O’Connor identified the welfare ad as Romney’s most effective. But the response from Newhouse was not narrowly focused on the ad. That’s clear from the words ABC News first quotes from Newhouse: “People are always going to get Pinocchios for this stuff.”

“This stuff” alludes to political ads generally, not to one specific ad. Newhouse continues by saying “We stand behind those ads and behind the facts in those ads.” Note that Newhouse refers to ads plural. He’s talking about the whole slate of Romney ads, not just the one Kessler singles out.

For that reason, we charged Kessler with including unnecessary context when he mentioned Newhouse’s comments came after the welfare ad was called the most effective. By his inclusion of that detail and the omission of the first two sentences ABC News recorded from Newhouse, Kessler reinforces the misleading impression Newhouse was talking specifically about the welfare ad.

Here’s how Kessler could have written about Newhouse while providing fully adequate context:

There has been no dispute among fact checkers on this question, with PolitiFact awarding the claim “Pants on Fire” and FactCheck.org also saying it was incorrect. Romney pollster Neal Newhouse dismissed the complaints of fact-checking organizations.

“People are always going to get Pinocchios for this stuff,” Newhouse said. “We stand behind those ads and behind the facts in those ads.”

Newhouse said fact checkers allow their personal views to color their work.

 

That’s one way to write Kessler’s story without supporting the false implication that Newhouse was saying he would run a false ad if it was effective.

Based on Kessler’s unwarranted interest in the sequencing of Newhouse’s comments, we think it likely Kessler believed in the false implication and tried to give his readers a hint about it through the way he presented the facts.

In other words, Kessler probably allowed his personal views to color his work.

 

Clarification, April 27, 2015: We expanded our description of “Kessler” in the second paragraph.

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