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Fact Checking the “Fact Checker,” Part 3

On Tuesday, I wrote a post called Who Checks the Fact-Checkers? In that post I criticized an article by Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who writes a regular feature called The Fact Checker. In The Fact Checker, Kessler purports to evaluate the truth or falsity of politicians’ statements. In the article I criticized, which ran on Monday, Kessler accused Rick Perry of a “newbie mistake” in Perry’s answer to a question on the Middle East from Time magazine:

Question: Do you believe there should be a Palestinian state?

I certainly have some concerns. The first step in any peaceful negotiation for a two-state solution for the Palestinians is to recognize the right of Israel’s existence. They have to denounce terrorism in both word and deed. And they have to sit down and negotiate with Israel directly. Anything short of that is a non-starter in my opinion.

Kessler awarded two “Pinocchios” to Perry, saying that he “is stuck in a time warp,” and that Perry’s answer showed him to be “remarkably uninformed” on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Kessler based that criticism on the fact that in 1993, as part of the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat wrote a letter in which he said, “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”

In my post, I argued that Perry was right and Kessler was wrong. You really have to read the post to get the full argument, but in summary, I said that the Oslo Accords collapsed under the violence of the Second Intifada; that a letter written by a dead terrorist 18 years ago hardly answers for all time the question whether the Palestinians have accepted Israel’s right to exist as an independent (let alone Jewish) nation; that Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, has backed away from Arafat’s letter by, among other things, stating publicly that while the PLO may have recognized Israel’s right to exist, his organization, Fatah–which dominates the PLO and controls the Palestinian Authority–has never recognized Israel, and that the Palestinian Authority “recognizes” Israel only in the sense that it acknowledges the identity of the people who write it checks; that Abbas’s close associate Azzam al-Ahmed, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said just three months ago that Fatah has never recognized Israel’s right to exist; that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip–home to nearly half the Palestinian population–most certainly has never recognized Israel’s right to exist; that the Palestinian Authority teaches school children that “Palestine” includes all of Israel; and that Israel is constantly subjected to terrorist attacks, which are not prevented but rather are celebrated by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, as well as most Palestinians.

In view of all those facts, I concluded that it is Glenn Kessler, not Rick Perry, who fails to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is “stuck in a time warp.”

One of our readers sent Kessler a link to my post, and Kessler responded with a brief email. That led me to do a follow-up post and to send this email to Mr. Kessler:

Mr. Kessler, a reader of my site forwarded to me the exchange he had with you about my critique of your post that awarded four Pinocchios to Rick Perry for his comments on the Middle East. You described my post as “biased.” I find this odd. My post did not purport to be unbiased; I am a conservative activist, just as you are a liberal activist. The question is, do you disagree with any of the facts that I offered in support of Rick Perry’s opinions (which I share)? If so, what aspects of my post do you claim were factually inaccurate, and why? If not, do you agree that there is ample factual support for the opinions that Rick Perry expressed to Time?

I find your emphasis on “bias” striking, since you claim to be a “fact checker,” not an “opinion policeman.” Rick Perry and I certainly have opinions on the Middle East, and no doubt other topics, that differ from yours. But if you are unable to identify any factual inaccuracies in Perry’s comments or in my post, I think you should withdraw your criticism and apologize to Mr. Perry.

John Hinderaker

Note specifically my emphasis on the facts that I presented in my original post, and my request that Kessler identify any that he claims are incorrect. To his credit, Kessler did respond to my email with a rather lengthy email of his own. It is reproduced in full below, with my comments interpolated:

Dear Mr. Hinderaker:

Thank you for giving me a chance to respond.

First of all, I did not award Rick Perry four Pinocchios for his somewhat misinformed comments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I awarded just two.

Time for a visit to my ophthalmologist. I’d have sworn I saw four, but there were only two. The point, however, is immaterial. The question is whether Kessler had a sound basis for accusing Perry not only of being factually incorrect, but of being “remarkably uninformed” about the Middle East.

I am a bit puzzled why you found my column so objectionable, since he really does not express much understanding of the complexities of this subject. I was simply trying to hold him to a standard that one would expect of a president.

Obviously Perry did not go into the complexities of the subject; he gave a brief answer to a question posed by Time. It is noteworthy that on the same day, he authored a lengthier op-ed in the Jerusalem Post on the same topic, with which Kessler could find no fault. Instead, Kessler paid it the snarky, back-handed compliment of saying that it was “surely written by a more knowledgeable campaign aide.”

(Indeed, The Post’s right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin has raised questions about whether he really knows these issues, saying his grasp of foreign policy is “still shaky.”)

Jennifer was not, of course, talking about the statements that Kessler attacked in The Fact Checker. I’m pretty sure that she would agree with Perry that one of the necessary conditions for resolution of the conflict is that Palestinians must accept Israel’s right to exist. Maybe I’ll ask her.

This is where it gets interesting. Rather than addressing any of the factual points I made, Kessler takes umbrage at my referring to him as a liberal.

Second, you show your bias by immediately assuming I am a liberal, based apparently on one article. There is nothing in background or my long history of reporting that can lead you to that conclusion. I have no political convictions but to the truth.

Actually, I think Kessler is a liberal because I have been reading his articles in the Post for approximately the last decade. We have had occasion to comment on his work before, for example here, where he misquoted Dick Cheney, and here, where he misquoted President Bush. In both instances, as in many others, he was pushing the liberal line.

In fact, I am frequently trashed by liberals for being a conservative because of the negative articles I have written on their sacred cows. I found it amusing that the headline on your article was almost the same as the headline on the response the White House posted when I gave Obama three Pinocchios for his comments on the auto bailouts. It seems neither political party likes Fact Checkers.

Liberal journalists love to make this argument: I must be in the middle because I am criticized by both liberals and conservatives. The argument is, of course, a non sequitur. I have been criticized by conservatives countless times; to name just one example, there were howls of outrage when I wrote that Sarah Palin had forfeited any opportunity to compete for the presidency when she resigned as governor of Alaska. But I am, nevertheless, a conservative.

If you ask a conservative whether he is a conservative, he will tell you, proudly, that he is. If you ask a liberal whether he is a liberal, he is likely to deny it. Liberalism: the ideology that dares not speak its name!

Your one bit of evidence is that I have given more “Four-Pinocchio” ratings to Republicans than to Democrats. I believe these ratings will even out over time. There currently are more Republicans running for president than Democrats, and most of these 4-Pinocchio ratings had to do with comments made by the GOP candidates (or in the case of Donald Trump, who twice got four Ps, pretend-candidates.) When I last did a summary of my ratings, in July, it turns out I had rated Democrats as often as Republicans, and their average rankings were virtually similar.

I reviewed (quickly) the “Fact Checker” archives from March 15 to the present, and these are the numbers I came up with: One Pinochio, 7 Republicans and 10 Democrats; two Pinocchios, 19 Republicans and 8 Democrats; three Pinocchios, 12 Republicans and 6 Democrats; four Pinocchios, 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Total, 46 Republicans and 27 Democrats, with Republicans earning an average of 2.46 Pinocchios, and Democrats an average of 2.07.

As for your critique of my column on Perry and Israel, I considered it biased because it was laden with opinions. That’s fine, but I have to deal in facts. I covered the State Department for nine years, devoting special attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and even wrote a book on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But perhaps you do not attach much significance to my credentials.

How was my post any more “laden with opinions” than Kessler’s supposed “fact check”? We both expressed opinions, but I cited far more facts. The relevant question is whether the facts support Perry’s opinion, or Kessler’s. And, no, I do not attach much significance to Kessler’s credentials (or to my own).

Here is what I checked in Perry’s statement, which he offered not as opinion, but fact.

“The first step in any peaceful negotiation for a two-state solution for the Palestinians is to recognize the right of Israel’s existence.”

Actually, Perry offered his statement as an opinion. His last words to Time were “in my opinion.” But the question with respect to any opinion is whether it is well-supported by facts. Perry’s opinion is amply justified by the facts, as I showed in my original post.

Explanation: The document I cited is posted on the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Israeli government believes the PLO, and by extension the Palestinian Authority, has recognized the state of Israel.  You claim to provide evidence that Abbas is being two-faced on this issue, but what leader hasn’t spun things to his people? The fact of the matter is that the official representative of the Palestinians in peace talks with Israel has recognized the state of Israel, and Israel regards that as an authoritative document.

This was the most problematic part of Perry’s comment—the primary reason I gave him two Pinocchios. I did suggest that perhaps he meant to refer to the Israeli request for recognition as a Jewish state. If so, this was a newbie mistake, since this is an important distinction. I noticed that when he spoke the next day, reading from a piece of paper, he got the “Jewish state” reference correct.

Note that, while I asked Kessler to identify any facts that I brought forth which he thinks are incorrect, he failed to do so. Kessler relies entirely on an 18-year old letter by a dead terrorist for the proposition that the question whether Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist is closed. That position strikes me as ludicrous, given all that has happened since 1993, only a tiny portion of which I referenced in my post.

And I didn’t just “claim to provide evidence” that Abbas, Fatah and Hamas have contradicted Arafat’s letter, I posted video of Abbas and quotes from Abbas and others in which they have done exactly that.

Kessler seems to think that Perry is unaware of the Oslo Accords–that is, I take it, the point of his column–but we know that isn’t true, since Perry referred to the accords in his Jerusalem Post op-ed. In that same column, Perry explained his concern about the Palestinians’ refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel:

In refusing to deal with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and taking this destabilizing action in the UN, the Palestinians are signaling that they have no interest in a two-state solution. The Palestinian leadership’s insistence on the so-called “right of return” of descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel’s sovereign territory, thereby making Jews an ethnic minority in their own state, is a disturbing sign that the ultimate Palestinian “solution” remains the destruction of the Jewish state.

Perry is correct. Palestinian rejectionism is the fundamental barrier to peace. Let’s cite just one piece of evidence from the inexhaustible stock with which the Palestinians provide us on almost a daily basis. This is from Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, on May 27, 2011:

The Zionists must acknowledge publicly, in front of the world, that the Jews have no connection to the Palestinian Arab land, upon whose ruins arose the colonialist settler Zionist plan that settles and expels, represented by the Israeli apartheid state. That which occurred two thousand years ago (i.e., the Jewish/Israeli presence in the land), assuming that it is true, represents in the book of history nothing more than invention and falsification and a coarse and crude form of colonialism.

But, Glenn Kessler says, nothing to worry about, just as it is no cause for concern that Palestinian maps don’t include Israel–Arafat wrote a letter 18 years ago!

“They have to denounce terrorism in both word and deed.”

Explanation: I documented that they have done so in “word.”  The “deed” part is more problematic, as I noted. I didn’t give Perry any Pinocchios for that. You are correct that I should have devoted more space to Hamas, or at least have been more specific on the split within the Palestinian community (though your column suggests there is no real split). I can’t gas on forever in my columns, but I agree I should have done more to explore this point.

The fact that Hamas, which rules close to half the Palestinian people, ferociously rejects Israel’s right to exist in any form means, without more, that Perry was right and Kessler had no business claiming that his comments were false. But note how naive Kessler is: he says that the Palestinians have denounced terrorism in “word,” but whom did Abbas send to present the PA’s petition to the United Nations? None other than Latifa Abu Hmeid, a Palestinian “heroine” whose sole claim to fame is that she is the mother of four terrorist murderers! The Palestinian Authority has not consistently renounced terrorism in word, let alone in deed.

“ And they have to sit down and negotiate with Israel directly. Anything short of that is a non-starter in my opinion.”

Explanation: The Palestinians, via the Palestinian Authority,  have done that, for many years.  They aren’t doing that now. Perry’s comments suggested he thought it had never happened. (This is also something he clarified when reading from a prepared statement after my column appeared.)

This is ridiculous: the purportedly objective Kessler refuses to give Perry credit for being right. The Palestinians, as Perry said, refuse to negotiate directly with Israel. Kessler implies that Perry only learned that the PA negotiated directly with Israel in former times because Kessler pointed it out in his column–at least I think that is what he is trying to imply–but that is obviously false. Perry wrote about this bit of history in his Jerusalem Post op-ed:

It was a mistake to inject an Israeli construction freeze, including in Jerusalem, as an unprecedented precondition for talks. Indeed, the Palestinian leadership had been negotiating with Israel for years, notwithstanding settlement activity.

When the Obama administration demanded a settlement freeze, it led to a freeze in Palestinian negotiations.

Perry’s op-ed appeared on September 15, the same day he made the comments to Time which Kessler ridiculed in the “Fact Checker.” Kessler knew this, because he mentioned the op-ed and linked to it in his “Fact Checker” column.

You seem upset that I was tough on Rick Perry. Sorry about that. But if you look at my column today on Obama at the UN, talking about Israel, you will see I am not too kind to him either.

I’ve been tough on Perry too, but facts are facts. Kessler wrongly smeared Perry as a “newbie” who is “remarkably uninformed” on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I welcome informed and thoughtful critiques of my work. (I also welcome suggestions of statements to vet and fact check.) You amassed some interesting evidence to bolster your case, such as the Abbas video. But you undercut your credibility as a critic by blithely declaring I’m a liberal, based on apparently a single data point.

I guess this is Kessler’s way of admitting that he can’t deny the truth of anything I wrote. Consequently, my “credibility as a critic” is not at issue. The question is whether the statements (opinions, as he called them) that Perry made to Time were false, as Kessler alleged. I think the evidence is clear that they were not. Put another way, Perry’s opinions are well-grounded in fact, much more so than Kessler’s.

Seriously, you can say I am wrong, or challenge my interpretation on various issues, but don’t assume my politics, because either from the right or left, no one really has any clue. I am strictly nonpartisan—which, to some people, appears to be the most irritating thing of all.

Not to me. To me, the most irritating thing of all is when people who pose as “fact checkers” don’t get their own facts straight and falsely accuse others of being uninformed. Once again, I call on Mr. Kessler to retract his “Pinocchios” and apologize to Rick Perry.

We do appreciate Mr. Kessler’s cordial response, and look forward to further such exchanges as the campaign season continues.

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