5 Times the Washington Post Failed At Fact-Checking

Pinocchio / AP
March 11, 2015

The Washington Post Fact Checker column presents itself as a non-biased arbiter of the truth. Here are five times it fell well short of that standard.

Ted Cruz's claim that the IRS tax code has more words than the Bible

The Fact Checker column usually tackles strong statements on complex issues that require rigorous research, analysis, and context.

And sometimes you get a nothing-burger like when Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), tapping into many Americans' frustrations with the bizarre complexity of their tax system, made the completely accurate statement that the IRS tax code contains more words than the Bible.

A sharp-tongued man who has never been accused of getting favorable press, Cruz was put through the ringer by the Washington Post. The fact that this easily verifiable nugget was even worth a long column in one of the country's most well-read newspaper sites is strange in and of itself; as writer Michelle Ye Hee Lee pointed out, she simply copy-and-pasted both documents into Microsoft Word to get the word count. The King James Bible contains more than 800,000, while the IRS code has about 3.7 million.

Pretty easy. Sounds like a Check Mark statement. Yet, while "Cruz is correct on the comparison of words in both texts," Lee concluded it was "a nonsense fact, something that is technically correct but ultimately meaningless. Thus it is not worthy of a Geppetto Checkmark but neither does it qualify for a Pinocchio."

Cruz makes the point that tax policies need to be drastically simplified, and many Americans likely would support that sentiment. But such a crude comparison, which provides no nuance or context, doesn’t capture why the tax code has become so complex and how it affects taxpayers.

Some true statements are truer than other statements, right? For his part, Kessler thought Fact-Checker was "generous" to not award any Pinocchios in this instance.

President Obama and the 'red line' on Syria's chemical weapons

One of President Obama's most clearly baloney remarks came when he told assembled press in 2013 that he "didn't set a red line" on Syria but, rather, the "world set a red line" regarding the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. In 2012, Obama said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation."

Glenn Kessler included this in his introduction:

How can the president say he did not create a "red line" when his statement last year about a "red line" is one of the most famous statements of his presidency? We’ve certainly received many tweets and e-mails from readers eager to see The Fact Checker slap a bunch of Pinocchios on him.

He went on to provide the context that Obama's words in 2012 surprised his aides, but the next day Press Secretary Josh Earnest backed up Obama's rhetoric and, as Kessler put it, "the red line, for better or worse, was in place."

We know what happened next. Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in August of 2013, and Obama hedged on taking military action, placing the idea of any "red line" on the rest of the world. From The Weekly Standard comes more proof that Obama meant what he said, with a White House official saying, "We go on to reaffirm that the President has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us."

Yet Kessler concluded this was an "ill-considered rhetorical statement" and a "bungled talking point" rather than a full flop or a lie.

Obama Knocked For Not Visiting Israel

The Emergency Committee for Israel and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign released ads in 2012 criticizing Obama for not visiting Israel once during his first term and creating "daylight" between the two countries.

Kessler listed all other U.S. presidents' travel schedules since Israel's founding and found four of the other 11, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had made official visits to the Jewish state. No part of either ad claimed that Obama wasn't the only president not to go, or even mentioned other presidents, but apparently not including this bit of added noise to 30-second spots was dishonest. The ads also pointed out Obama's trips around the rest of the Middle East while spurning Israel, which are not in dispute.

The daylight created between Israel and the U.S. during the Obama administration is one of the worst marks on the White House's foreign policy record, and these ads highlighted that. EIC Executive Director Noah Pollak defended his group's ad to Kessler by saying, "It doesn’t criticize Obama simply for not visiting in his first term. It doesn’t make any comparison to visits by other presidents. It criticizes him for traveling to the Middle East repeatedly but intentionally skipping Israel as part of his ‘daylight’ policy of distancing the U.S. from Israel while pursuing friendly relations with Muslim states. I think the ad is pretty clear on this."

Kessler acknowledged Pollak was "correct" on that front but still saw fit to give the ads Two Pinocchios.

Did Mary Landrieu cast the 'deciding' vote for Obamacare?

Yes, she did, as an Americans for Prosperity explained in a damning ad in 2014. But to hear Kessler tell it, this was "Two Pinocchio" worthy because, in the 60-39 Senate cloture vote that ended debate on the Affordable Care Act in 2009, every Democrat cast a "deciding" vote on the bill.

Well, yeah. And if Landrieu had not done so, the bill would not have achieved cloture at that time. Every vote was a "deciding vote" and Landrieu was one of them. Blogger Paterico explains:

Her vote was not just "important" to the outcome — it was critical. It was indispensable — in the sense that without it, there would be no ObamaCare. There would be no second bill and no signed law. Landrieu’s vote was absolutely essential to the passage of the law — as was the vote of every other Democrat.

Kessler instead got bogged down with the semantics of AFP using "deciding" versus "crucial" or "indispensable" and felt the claim was untrue enough to merit a Two Pinocchio rating.

SNL skit suggests Obama's immigration executive action is unconstitutional*

Was it the sheer shock of watching Saturday Night Live actually get a pretty good burn on Obama? Maybe that's what compelled policy editor Zachary Goldfarb to fact-check a November cold open skewering Obama taking executive action to shield illegal immigrants from deportation. In the skit parodying Schoolhouse Rock, Jay Pharaoh's Obama pushes Kenan Thompson's "Bill" down the Capitol steps repeatedly, while the Executive Order (Bobby Moynihan) smokes a cigarette and sings, "I'm an executive order, and I pretty much just happen."

Goldfarb got super-serious and dissected such details as executive orders versus executive actions and the constitutionality of Obama's endeavor. He didn't get into how Obama had said for years that his executive amnesty actions were outside his authority.

Also, it doesn't appear the Washington Post ever checked for sure that Will Ferrell's Bush wanted to put Germany, the economy and math into his "Axis of Evil." That, of course, would have been absurd since this was a silly comedy show. They did get around, four years later, to debunking the idea that Sarah Palin had actually said "I can see Russia from my house," as made famous by Tina Fey's impersonation.

We give these blunders double double Pinocchios.

*Goldfarb did not write that article for the Fact Checker column. It was in the "Wonkblog."