Glenn Kessler's Fact Checking is for the Birds

Glenn Kessler, the fact-checking columnist of the Washington Post, often employs logic that's more factually dubious than the claim he's covering.

Here's his explanation for why he gives President Obama four Pinocchios for saying in ads that Mitt Romney wants to kill Big Bird:

Romney may have been off base in suggesting PBS funding has much to do with the deficit, but that's no excuse for the Obama campaign to declare that means the demise of a popular children's character. According to the financials of Sesame Workshop, Big Bird should do just fine, with or without public funding.

Romney said during the debate he wants to kill funding for PBS, citing Big Bird and Jim Lehrer as examples of its programming.

PBS receives 15 percent of its funding from the federal government, which amounts to around $1 per American per year. But some of its member stations are not funded as well as others, as PBS explains:

These dollars are particularly important to smaller stations. While the appropriation equals about 15 percent of our system's revenue, this is an aggregate number. For many stations, the appropriation counts for as much as 40-50 percent of their budget.

If Romney becomes president and eliminates funding to PBS, some of its stations will lose half of their funding overnight and almost certainly shut down. For those viewers, this will kill Big Bird and all the rest of the programming that public television provides.

The issue isn't whether Sesame Street could survive without PBS. It would, because the show has 43 years of popularity and generates millions in licensing revenue. The issue is whether PBS stations could survive without federal funding.

The Obama ads are using Big Bird as a metaphor for the programming that would disappear from the homes of Americans if Romney killed PBS funding. I think it's a fair use of rhetoric that doesn't deserve to be called a lie.


If just 10% of taxpayers started/increased giving just $1.25/month (just $15/year), they would more than make up the money we're talking about. If they can't get $15/year from 10% of Americans, we probably shouldn't be getting federal dollars.

Would you apply that rule to defense spending? If just 10 percent of Americans gave $22,470 a year, that would fund our nation's military.

I think $1 a year is worth it when it provides educational benefits to children and cultural and informational benefits to the public.

I wish I had a good platform for an idea I've had for an article about where "fact-checking" went wrong. Essentially, US journalistic rules which stress form over substance are being applied to questions of deep substance, and hence giving perverse results. That is, US journalistic rules are that you can wildly misconstrue someone's intent, change the phrasing of what they said or take it out of context to imply something else, and that's all OK - but you'd better spell the names right, otherwise that's wrong. It's heavily literal in that specific sense. That shows up in what you say right here (my emphasis) - "The Obama ads are using Big Bird as a metaphor for the programming ...". That metaphor is the problem. Romney doesn't literally want to end Sesame Street, so in that narrow sense, he doesn't want to kill Big Bird. Whether defunding PBS stations can fairly be described as killing Big Bird is very much a judgment that requires a bunch of associated concepts. And making those sort of determinations is a much harder task, one that US journalist rules are ill-equipped to handle philosophically.

I think the question is whether the US government should be involved in spending taxpayers money on funding for PBS. Personally, I don't think its the governments place to be funding PBS. I the American public wants this avenue of education for their children, let them fund it themselves, individually. This is the problem with the government and their runaway spending. Everybody wants to fund all these feel good projects instead of what the government was established to do.

... making those sort of determinations is a much harder task, one that US journalist rules are ill-equipped to handle philosophically.

I don't know why it has to be so hard. Why can't fact checkers like Kessler confine themselves to factual matters that can be determined with more certainty? The question of whether "kill Big Bird" should be taken literally or metaphorically requires more nuance than to declare it a lie or the truth.

The problem is that "kill Big Bird" is, structurally, not significantly different from "kill Medicare [as we know it]". If a fact-checker can't handle "kill Medicare", then they are severely circumscribed in the role they can play. They're essentially constrained to checking if the names are spelled right - i.e. almost anything that really matters, they can't handle.

The action "kill Big Bird" is obviously not literal, so it lends itself to being interpreted as a metaphor.

The action "kill Medicare" could be literal, because a government program can be killed.

I'd prefer that fact checkers like Kessler focus on political statements and ads that should be interpreted literally. An evaluation of whether Paul Ryan wants to kill Medicare by replacing it with vouchers for people 55 and under is sophisticated, but not impossible.

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