When ‘Factchecking’ Means Telling Your Colleagues They’re Liars

Factchecking ought to be an everyday part of each journalist’s job, but instead it’s relegated to a specialty feature. Maybe lack of regular practice explains why those side efforts are so disappointing.

Take Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post‘s piece (6/21/12) on Barack Obama’s latest ad critical of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Kessler gives the ad “four Pinocchios”–reserved for the most deceptive statements: “On just about every level, this ad is misleading, unfair and untrue, from the use of ‘corporate raider’ to its examples of alleged outsourcing.”

Kessler was defiant when Talking Points Memo (6/22/12) asked him how he squared his harsh criticism of Obama’s ad for complaining that Romney shipped jobs overseas with the Washington Post news article (6/21/12) published the same day as his factchecking piece, headlined “Romney’s Bain Capital Invested in Companies That Moved Jobs Overseas.” Was his colleague Tom Hamburger a quadruple Pinocchio too?

Kessler explained the difference between absolute lying and high-quality Washington Post-style journalism: “To be clear, there is a distinction between saying someone is responsible for shipping jobs overseas (the ad) and saying someone invested in companies that specialized in helping companies subcontract work to overseas factories (Tom’s story).” Ah, that’s perfectly clear.

The ad’s use of the phrase “corporate raider” seem to particularly incense Kessler:

The phrase “corporate raider” has a particular meaning in the world of finance…. This is generally an adversarial stance, in which an investor sees an undervalued asset and forces management to spin off assets, take the company private or break it up.

In a previous life, The Fact Checker covered renowned corporate raiders such as Carl Icahn and his ilk. We also have closely studied Bain Capital and can find no examples that come close to this situation; its deals were done in close association with management.

See, you can only call someone a “corporate raider” if management objected to the raid; if it’s only workers who feel raided, then you have to call him a “private equity executive” or some such.

Except it seems like a lot of people in politics and journalism don’t have the same understanding of the phrase that Kessler does. He claims that the White House could only come up with a single example of its use in relation to Romney, from Reuters, and Reuters says it has no idea how that slipped in. I assume, though, that The Fact Checker knows how to use Nexis; if he looks for “corporate raider” and “Romney,” he’ll find hundreds of examples all on his own.

Most of these are attributed to Romney’s political opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties–a bipartisan consensus that I would think would carry some water with the Washington Post. But there are numerous examples of journalists–both commentators and news reporters–using it in their own voice:

In the course of buying up troubled companies and turning them around, he utilized the bloodless traits of the corporate raider.
–Tom Fiedler, Miami Herald (10/24/94)

That is not surprising for a Bain Capital corporate raider whose main line of work is to take over companies and then squeeze them for profit.
–John Vennochi, Boston Globe (4/4/02)

His campaign has made little secret about feeling the need for Romney to shed the corporate-raider image that plagued his U.S. Senate campaign in 1994.
–Rick Klein, Boston Globe (9/26/02)

The fearmongers on the campaign went after Gov.-elect Mitt Romney for being a slash-and-burn corporate raider.

But when it comes to dense government bureaucracy and redundant administrative functions, a knife and a torch may be just what the taxpayers ordered.
–Cosmo Macero Jr., Boston Herald (11/25/02)

It is a photo of six corporate raiders, grinning and brandishing dollar bills to underline the success of their company. And none is preppier, more handsome and more delighting in his trade than the man the middle–who just happens, 20 years later, to be front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
–Rupert Cornwell, London Independent (10/15/11)

Perry unleashed the class-warfare barb at Romney, who made millions as a cor­porate raider, because Romney once called such schemes a boon for “fat cats.”
–S.A. Miller, New York Post, 10/26/11

He looks like the corporate raider he was–the one who will turn a company upside-down if that’s what it takes.
–Mike Littwin, Denver Post (12/4/11)

What a bunch of Pinocchios–right, Mr. Kessler?

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.