Part 2—Proceeds to turn water to wine: Over at the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler has long been in charge of the paper's Fact Checker site.
Normally, Kessler's work has only appeared on line. Each Sunday, though, some sample of his work has appeared in the hard-copy Post.
In this way, the Post has turned devotion to fact into a once-a-week, Sunday event, like the old-fashioned visit to Grandma's house or the long, lazy nap on the porch.
Today, though, Post breaks the mold! In the past few weeks, the mainstream press has made a decision—it cares about facts after all! In line with that exciting new value, the Post has published a Kessler lieutenant in its hard-copy editions.
Kessler's lieutenant is Michelle Ye Hee Lee. She fact-checks recent statements by Spicer and Trump, and quickly bungles her task.
Good lord! There Lee sat, at the top of page A5, right in our hard-copy Post! Excitedly, the analysts started to read—but as they read her first paragraph, they emitted a wail, then a groan.
Lee begins by quoting Sean Spicer's latest misstatement. Then, just like that, her bungling starts. For now, we'll highlight one single word:
LEE (1/25/17): "I think there have been studies; there was one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed that 14 percent of people who have voted were not citizens. There are other studies that were presented to him."That statement by Spicer was rich with bungling, as we'll note below. But Lee's first paragraph is bungled too. Specifically, we refer to her assertion that Trump's recent (unfounded) contention is "false."
—White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, at a news briefing Jan. 24
The White House on Tuesday reiterated President Trump’s false contention that he lost the national popular vote because of 3 million to 5 million illegal votes, as yet another untruth swelled into a distraction that threatens to undermine his first week in office.
Nothing Lee says, in a full-length piece, justifies that assertion. Nothing justifies her claim that the statement is an "untruth."
Does Lee actually know that Trump's unfounded contention is "false?" We find no sign that she actually does, as we'll explain below. As others are turning falsehoods to lies, we would say that Lee has now turned an unfounded statement to "false."
Yes, but does that actually matter? the excited liberal might ask.
We'd say that it very much does! Aside from a general rule of thumb—the journalist should only make claims she can defend—we'll explain why this actually matters by the time this series is done.
There are several major reasons why this matters, reasons which should be of special concern to liberals, progressives and Democrats. We'll return to those reasons, which we've note before, in the next few days.
For today, let's focus on our specific claim. Let's consider the claim that Lee, at the mother of all fact-checking sites, has made a substantial bungle, has turned "unfounded" to "false."
Reportedly, Donald J. Trump has now claimed that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in November's election. We would assume that this (largely unfounded) statement is false, but it's quite hard to prove that it's false.
Everyone has heard the rule of thumb—it's hard to prove a negative! Applied to this case, that rule tells us this:
It's hard to prove that Donald J. Trump's unfounded statement is false.
Everyone has heard that rule of thumb. Today, amid all the excitement about the new importance of facts, we'd say Lee blows right past it.
In truth, there's nothing in Lee's hard-copy piece which shows that Donald J. Trump's claim is false. Let's review the various ways Lee bungles her evidence.
Before too long, Lee reaches the part of her report which bears this heading: "The Facts." In her first paragraph beneath that heading, she overlooks a gong-show misstatement—a gong-show misstatement by Spicer.
Below, we show you the way the text appears in the hard-copy Post. On line, Lee's text is much shorter, and it's substantially different.
We don't have the slightest idea why a big newspaper would want to do that. But for the record, this is the text which appears in today's hard-copy Post:
LEE: Spicer said that a Pew study from 2008 showed that “14 percent of people who have voted were not citizens.” He probably was referring to research by Old Dominion University professors, using data from 2008 and 2010, that was published two years ago by the Monkey Cage, a political sciences blog hosted by The Washington Post. They found that 14 percent of noncitizens in the 2008 and 2010 samples said they were registered to vote.Uh-oh! Lee doesn't seem to have noticed. But she and Spicer give vastly different accounts of what those professors said.
According to Lee, the professors said that 14 percent of noncitizens in their samples said they were registered to vote. According to Spicer, the professors said that 14 percent of people who voted in the past were noncitizens.
Those are vastly different statements! Consider:
If we apply Lee's account of what the professors said to November's election, it would mean that roughly 1.5 million illegal votes were cast. (Fourteen percent of the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized residents.)
But uh-oh! If we apply Spicer's formulation to last November's election, it would suggest that roughly 19 million illegal votes may have been cast! (Fourteen percent of the 136 million total votes.)
According to Lee, Spicer competely misstated what the professors said! But so what? Lee completely failed to notice the fact that Spicer authored this gross misstatement. In part for this reason, his account will rocket around the conservative world, heightening conservatives' sense of the depth of this alleged problem.
So it goes at the Washington Post under this rubric: "The Facts."
So the fact-checking tends to go at the Washington Post! Might this give us a hint of the skill levels found in our mainstream press?
We'll keep that question for another day! For today, we'll note that Lee started by giving Spicer a total pass on a major, howling misstatement. She then proceeds to make another mistake, turning "unfounded" to "false."
Alas! Nothing in Lee's presentation shows that Trump's statement is "false." For ourselves, we would assume that his statement is false. But Lee's report doesn't demonstrate any such fact.
Indeed, her own account of what the professors said might seem to suggest, on its face, that a lot of unauthorized residents really are registered to vote. That's different from actually voting, of course, a second distinction Lee fails to note. But Lee's critique of the professors' study may seem to suggest that a lot of unauthorized people really are registered to vote.
This tilts the field in Trump's direction. It's hard to see how this aligns with her claim that Trump's statement is "false."
Is Trump's latest statement actually "false?" Lee demonstrates no such thing. Indeed, when she critiques the professors' study, she seems to leave a great deal of room for doubt about what the actual facts may be.
Trump supporters will see lots of wiggle room here—a whole lot of room for concern about the possible amount of illegal voting:
LEE (continuing directly): But the researchers warned that “it is impossible to tell for certain whether the noncitizens who responded to the survey were representative of the broader population of noncitizens.”Good God! Based upon that account, we'd start by rolling our eyes and saying this:
A number of researchers were skeptical of the findings and methodology. In particular, critics noted the small sample of noncitizens and the possibility, explained by the study's own authors, that some of the self-reported"noncitizen" voters in the study might actually have been citizens who "accidentally misstated" their status. Some critiques are being incorporated into a revision of the original study.
One of the researchers, Jesse Richman, wrote about the Trump staff’s use of his research. The results “suggest that almost all elections in the US are not determined by noncitizen participation, with occasional and very rare potential exceptions,” he wrote.
The original post on the Monkey Cage now includes an editor's note at the beginning of the article saying that it inspired three rebuttals and a peer-reviewed article saying the findings were biased.
These professors today!
Based upon that account, it sounds like the two professors thoroughly bungled their research. Beyond that, it sounds like the Washington Post also bungled, when it allowed the Monkey Cage to report such bungled work.
To our ear, that passage seems to suggest that the professors' research wasn't worth the fig leaves on which it was written. But nothing in that embarrassing passage shows that Trump's claim is false.
That passage does suggest that Trump's claim is unfounded, at least to the extent that it was based upon that apparently bungled study. But nothing there shows that his claim is false—and conservatives will see much room, in that very passage, for suspecting that many non-citizens really are registered to vote.
(Example: Was the professors' sample of non-citizens possibly "biased?" Liberals will take that possibility to mean that many fewer than 14 percent, maybe even none, are actually registered to vote. Conservatives will take it to mean that the real percentage might be even higher!)
Readers, let's review:
Suddenly, the Washington Post has decided that it cares a great deal about facts. For that reason, it took The Fact Checker hard-copy today, in mid-week, breaking with genteel tradition.
But alas! When it took The Checker hard-copy, The Fact Checker bungled its task. In truth, The Fact Checker made a series of bungles. Foremost among them was this:
As Jesus once turned water to wine, Lee changed unfounded to false. Meanwhile, make no mistake—conservatives will notice this fact.
Before we end, let's say this: In our view, Lee was much too easy on several players today. First and foremost, she was much too easy on Sean Spicer.
She failed to note the way he misstated what the professors had said. She went too easy on his bungled citation of Pew, a prestige site whose study in 2012 provides exactly zero support for Trump's latest unfounded claim.
Spicer's misstatements were demonstrable and grievous; the Fact Checker barely noticed. It seems she was excitedly chasing the press corps' major target today. In the process, she excitedly changed unfounded to false.
Is Donald J. Trump's new statement false? We would assume that it is, but Lee's exciting, excited piece fails to demonstrate this fact.
When the Washington Post overreaches this way, the conservative world takes notice. The tribe's spear-chuckers will tell the troops that this means that they shouldn't believe a single thing the Post says.
In truth, that isn't the world's worst advice. But it leads to the Babel of Conwayism and to the death of our culture.
We liberals are having big fun this week, turning water to wine. We're turning falsehoods into lies. We're turning unfounded to false.
We liberals are having our usual fun. But we will pay the price in the end, just as we've already paid a huge price for our own past clowning, for our naps in the woods, for our crowning incompetence.
Our tribe just isn't impressive at all—unless you let Us tell it.
Still coming: Falsehoods, misstatements and lies? False, unfounded, misleading?
Why do we have so many words? And, at times of high excitement, why should these differences matter?