My Favorite Glenn Kessler Fuck Up
Ryan Grim has a wonderful story at The Intercept about Washington Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler and his nearly constant fuck ups, most of which seem to be directed towards left-wing politicians or facts favorable to left-wing critiques.
Grim provides a ton of examples in his piece, but he misses the one that is my personal favorite. This is a deep cut Kessler fuck up that only the most obsessed Kessler observers will have noticed. This fuck up consists not of one mistaken fact check, but of a direct contradiction between two fact-checks that Kessler, to this day, refuses to reconcile in any way.
The background to this fuck up is the Blahous estimate of the cost of Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal. In his short white paper, Blahous provided this estimate in the form of this table.
The goal of the paper was to highlight the number I have circled in red: 32,644. What this number says is that federal health expenditures will increase by $32.6 trillion under Medicare for All.
But look at the table again and notice something peculiar about it: Blahous provides aggregates for 2022–2031 for some of the figures but not others. That seems strange, doesn’t it? Why on earth are there just blank cells over there on the right-hand column?
The answer becomes clear once you fill in two of the blanks, which I have done in the below table.
When you fill in the conspicuous blanks, you see something very interesting. According to this table, under our current system, total health expenditures from all sources (NHE) is forecasted to be $59.65 trillion while total health expenditures under Medicare for All is being forecasted by Blahous at $57.6 trillion. This means that, under Medicare for all, overall health expenditures decrease by $2 trillion.
For the purposes of the fuck up below, it is important to emphasize then that the claims 1) Medicare for All will increase federal health expenditures by $32.6 trillion and 2) Medicare for All will reduce overall health expenditures by $2 trillion are two ways of presenting the same table of the same estimate. So to say one is to say the other.
For Kessler, Truth Depends on the Speaker
In August of 2018, Kessler wrote the infamous piece in which he gives 3 Pinnochios to the claim that Blahous’s study finds that Medicare for All will save $2 trillion.
Kessler calling true things lies is par for the course. But here is where things get really crazy. Just two months later in October of 2018, Kessler rushed out a fact-check of a USA Today op-ed authored by President Trump. In that op-ed, Trump cited to the same table from the same study that Bernie Sanders cited from. But, as you would expect, Trump focused on the $32.6 trillion figure rather than the $2 trillion figure.
Despite the fact that these are the same figures from the same table of the same study from the same author, Kessler says that Trump is telling the truth. Indeed, after some harassment from yours truly, Kessler even added a parenthetical noting that this means national health expenditures will go down (he doesn’t say by how much, but guess what, it’s $2 trillion).
So to repeat: here we have two politicians — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — both citing the same numbers from the same table of the same study from the same author. When Sanders cites them, he gets 3 Pinocchios. When Trump cites them, he is declared “correct.”
Polluting the Discourse
On some level, Kessler’s bias and incompetence is just funny and we’re all having a good time about it. But on another level, it is actually kind of toxic. Before I got into the think tank game at the level that I am currently at, I didn’t realize how much these bullshit fact checks matter to what we might think of as “downstream” publications.
Local journalists and TV journalists bizarrely and wrongly consider “fact checks” from the prestigious Washington Post to be some kind of gold standard. The referee has spoken. It is the Truth.
So when local candidates are running for office and say things like “Medicare for All will save $2 trillion,” their opponents can simply share Kessler’s wrong piece with the local media and they report that the claim is a lie. This is no doubt why Blahous and his team worked the fact-checkers so hard and published the study right ahead of the 2018 midterms: it provided headlines that say “Medicare for All will cost $32.6 trillion” to run in advertisements and the subsequent fact-checks provided ways to get local media to call left-wing candidates liars.
I had to deal with this problem directly because I had many campaigns contact me and say they needed my help because the local newspaper was about to publish something saying that their M4A claims are a lie based on Kessler’s bullshit. And I did try to help them, both by laying out what the study actually says and, somewhat more effectively, by showing like I did above that Kessler is completely contradictory on this, saying the claims are true when Trump repeats them but false when Sanders repeats them.
A lot of local journalists seem to have a kind of reverence for the Washington Post, which makes sense as it, along with the New York Times, is sort of the big leagues of journalism. And they are just shocked to see that there is this man named Glenn Kessler who publishes completely bogus nonsense all the time. It’s amazing to me honestly that the Washington Post allows it to happen. It’s “not a good look” as they say but also, in a media environment where local resources are so scarce, Kessler fucking up really does pollute the entire discourse in a way that is almost impossible to repair.