Ahead of the Democrats’ first 2020 primary debate on Wednesday, the Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler published a piece listing claims from many of the prominent candidates. And on many counts, it showed a bizarre tendency to apply undue criticism to the Democrats.
While President Donald Trump has provided an unending amount of work for fact-checkers, and fact-checking has been endlessly valuable under his presidency, the practice is not without its flaws. Kessler, in particular, has previously been called out for applying bizarrely specific standards to statements and sometimes calling obviously true statements “misleading” if he doesn’t like what they imply.
One extreme example of this habit was shown in his fact check of a claim by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT):
“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”
— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job. But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And the “millions” of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent of workers are not working two or three jobs “just to survive,” making this a misleading statement.
It’s not clear at all how this is “misleading.”
When Sanders refers to “millions of Americans,” there’s no reason to think he should be referring to a population greater than 5 percent of workers. He said “millions,” and he meant “millions” — you can’t get more straightforward than that. Kessler points out that the extra jobs are usually “part time, not full time,” but again, this doesn’t contradict anything Sanders said or implied. If Sanders had said “Far more than 5 percent of Americans are working two or three full-time jobs,” Kessler might have a point. But that’s not what he said.
You could potentially quibble with Sanders’ claim that people work the extra jobs “just to survive” — we don’t really know why 8 million people are working more than one job — but this would be overly literal. We know the point Sanders is making.
Other fact-checks contain other bizarre nitpicks. For example, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper boasted about his state having “the number one economy in the country for three straight years,” citing a review by U.S. News and World Report. Kessler gave him “two Pinocchios” for this claim, because other data may suggest other rankings. But being the “number one economy” is clearly just an opinion anyway, not really subject to a fact check. And if it is, having a mainstream source to cite that made such a ranking should be more than enough to give the remark a passing grade.
Of course, Kessler is just one journalist, and this is just one set of fact checks. But it’s a sign that, as the Democratic primary heats up, the media will begin applying severe scrutiny to their claims. Anyone running for president deserves scrutiny, of course, and that’s the media’s job — but in an attempt to balance out the deluge of criticism President Donald Trump receives, mainstream media sources is likely to overreact to Democrats’ flaws. Overboard fact-checking may be just one way this tendency manifests.
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