Glenn Kessler on Fact-Checking Candidates, Getting Off the Bus, and Reporters Who Are Ahead of the Curve

Glenn Kessler

Glenn Kessler is a diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, and often contributes to the Post’s political coverage. In 1998, he joined the Post as national business editor and switched to reporting in 2000 to cover domestic economic policy and the Bush administration’s tax cut proposal. Before joining the Post he worked for 11 years as a reporter for Newsday, and led the paper’s coverage of the 1996 election. Kessler spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the election.

Thomas Lang: During the Republican convention, your byline appeared on two pieces fact-checking the speeches. Given that these instances were not the first time a candidate had distorted the truth, what led you to writing these fact check pieces?

Glenn Kessler: I have done these in previous campaigns. And we probably should have done these as well for the Democratic convention. But the Democrats were on such good behavior that it didn’t jump out at the editors that we needed to do one of those. I think probably Kerry’s speech could have had some assertions fact-checked. Four years ago, I fact-checked Gore’s speech and Bush’s and I did it [again] during the debates. I plan on doing it for the debates this year. The level of the attacks at the Republican convention focused everyone’s attention on the need to provide context to our readers.

TL: So the process that goes into determining whether to do a fact-check is to wait and see the speech and go forward from there?

GK: Yeah. The general idea is that we want to do [fact-checking pieces] a lot. The Post has had a number of [fact-checking] articles, not just by me, but by others. There was a long article on the $87 billion [Iraq appropriations bill] and other [fact-checks] of television ads. The tone of the Republican convention was much more an attack on the other candidate than the Democratic convention and the Republicans made a lot of assertions. What you want to do as a newspaper is provide context to readers as to what those statements mean and where they come from.

TL: As you usually write about foreign policy issues, you rarely get out on the campaign trail. What advantages do you think you have from not being on the campaign trail?

GK: I am able to step back and not totally focus on the day-to-day back-and-forth. I’ve spent a number of years covering politics and have been on the campaign trail, so I know how difficult it is to fact-check on the road — though I think the Post reporters do a pretty good job of providing context as much as they can within the stories they write. Having had my campaign trail experience I don’t plan to repeat it anytime soon.

TL: Over the past few weeks you’ve written about North Korea and Iran. How does the rhetoric on these situations being bantered about on the campaign trail match up with the reality? Are the candidates speaking meaningfully? If not what’s missing?

GK: What is missing is a lot of context and history. Kerry has attacked Bush rather toughly on North Korea and the background of why and how the Bush administration reached its policy decisions is often missing in those attacks. The same is the case with Iran. In both cases [the administration] has had a lot of trouble coming up with an effective policy and implementing it. But I think some of the attacks are probably lost on readers and viewers who are not aware of the twist and turns of the past two years in implementing these policies.

TL: So is there anything meaningful being discussed or is it all rhetoric?

GK: The key to a successful campaign is really framing the issues in way that resonates with the voters. The issues are always going to be simplified. And it’s really up to voters to take the time to figure out what’s behind those statements, and to understand what the candidate is trying to say. With these fact-check stories and broader context stories I hope to provide voters with those tools so they can make their own decisions. Just because the statements are simplified doesn’t mean there’s not a large kernel of truth behind the point the candidate is trying to make. The other candidate’s ability or inability to respond to those charges says a lot about that person. So I’m wary of dismissing everything as a bunch of garbage — particularly if you go back and look at previous campaigns, the larger truth about those candidates becomes apparent through the campaign debates.

TL: In 2000, you also spent time fact-checking and covering the candidates, specifically on economics. What sticks out to as different about this election?

GK: What strikes me about this election is that for many voters the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been for. In the 2000 election you really got a sense that, while people were happy with economic policy laid out by Clinton, they didn’t necessarily feel that it made a tremendous difference in their lives if power changed to another party. This election you really feel that voters on both sides are absolutely passionate about defeating the other side — and not only economic issues, but also foreign policy issues central to the debate.

TL: What other political reporters do you read?

GK:Obviously I’m biased. I think the Washington Post political staff is without peer. [Specifically], Dan Balz and David Broder, and then on the Style section Mark Leibovich as well the political reporters covering each of the candidates.

At other newspapers, I think Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times is very insightful. Also, John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal is often ahead of the curve.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.