After four years of relentless fact checks of statements by President Trump, many wondered whether fact-checkers would apply similar scrutiny to President Biden.
Responding to right-leaning critics who “have been urging fact checks of ‘Biden lies,’” Glenn Kessler, editor and chief writer of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, tweeted, “We have no plans to start a Biden false or misleading claims tracker, just as we had no plans at this point to start a Trump tracker. The constant tweeting of falsehoods forced our hand. But we have an open mind and if the need arises we will consider one.”
Some remained skeptical. “We have no plans to hold Biden accountable the way we did the previous administration,” tweeted journalist Stephen Miller, mockingly interpreting Kessler’s statement. “Glenn, I for one thank you for this refreshing bit of honesty.”
Now that Biden has been president for nearly four months, how has the Post handled Biden’s false statements?
In a recent recap of several of Biden’s Pinocchio-worthy (that is, false or misleading) statements, Kessler decried his “recidivism,” given that “there are three claims President Biden has made that appear impervious to fact-checking.” He has repeatedly made false comparisons between the number of COVID deaths and American casualties in numerous wars; he has misleadingly claimed that 83% of the benefits of Trump’s 2017 tax cut affect the top 1% of taxpayers; and he has frequently falsely stated that a recently enacted Georgia law would end early voting hours at 5 p.m. Despite corrections from the Post and other fact-checkers, Biden has continued to repeat these falsehoods.
In numerous other pieces, the Post has been similarly persistent in pointing out the president’s incorrect claims.
Shortly after his inauguration, Biden stated, “Under the previous administration, the federal government contracts awarded directly to foreign companies went up 30 percent. That is going to change on our watch.” In fact, the number is much lower. The Post initially gave this claim Three Pinocchios, but added another once new information came to light. As Kessler stated, the federal procurement data system numbers “are difficult to obtain and analyze, and the data is not considered to be especially useful for policymaking,” but the actual increase of contracts seems to be 8.4%. “Recall that overall government spending went up 20 percent in that period, so the percentage of spending on foreign contracts actually decreased under Trump,” Kessler noted. “That would be the more relevant figure, not the raw dollars spent.”
The following month, when Biden misleadingly claimed “all the economics show” that a $15 minimum wage would cause “the whole economy” to rise, Kessler awarded him Two Pinocchios. He pointed out that Biden may not have intended to imply that “there was universal consensus on the impact of a minimum-wage hike, with virtually no downside, resulting in a booming economy,” but that the implication was nonetheless false. Biden’s claim is a statement of fact that verges closely on opinion; if he had simply said that a $15 minimum wage would lead to a booming economy, there would be nothing to fact check. But his misleading addendum is worthy of critique.
That same month, Kessler examined Biden’s repeated claim that he had traveled “17,000 miles” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kessler recounted then-Vice President Biden’s Chinese itinerary, summing the mileage traversed by the two leaders across China and America. Even generous estimates of the breadth of their travels fell thousands of miles short of the 17,000-mile figure. Kessler noted that while “some readers may object” that the mistaken claim was “inconsequential,” Biden insisted on “using a figure that cannot be verified in a misleading way.” For that mendacity, Kessler awarded Three Pinocchios.
On March 4, Kessler reviewed two of Biden’s claims about Hispanics – first, that the “vast majority” of undocumented persons in the United States are “not Hispanics” and second, that Hispanics constituted “the fastest-growing [demographic group] in the United States.” Kessler found both claims to be false. He cited a Migration Policy Institute study that estimated that 75% of undocumented persons are Hispanic. Then, Kessler referenced U.S. Census data showing that Asians, not Hispanics, are the fastest-growing demographic group in America. For the two misstatements, Kessler again gave Biden Three Pinocchios.
On March 16, Kessler evaluated the president’s inconsistent estimates of the effects of his American Rescue Plan on the economy. In February, Biden claimed that Moody’s investment firm had predicted the ARP would “lead to 4 million more jobs than otherwise would be created.” A month later, Biden revised the estimate upwards, claiming that the firm predicted the ARP “alone” would create “7 million new jobs” by year’s end. Kessler said that the president’s latter claim was “incorrect” – Moody’s projected that the ARP itself would add 4 million jobs on top of the 3 million that would be created regardless of the bill’s passage. Since Biden’s team corrected the error, Kessler refused to award any Pinocchios to the president. Still, he held him to account for slippery language.
The president also created the false impression that his infrastructure plan would create millions of jobs. On April 6, Kessler gave Biden Two Pinocchios for this claim: “Independent analysis shows that if we pass this plan, the economy will create 19 million jobs — good jobs, blue-collar jobs, jobs that pay well.” The Post noted that the bill alone is not sufficient to create these jobs, but is actually projected to create close to 2.7 million jobs over a decade.
The Post also corrected a few misstatements the president made regarding guns earlier this month. “Most people don’t know, you walk into a store and you buy a gun, you have a background check. But you go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want and no background check,” Biden said. But as Kessler and Salvador Rizzo, a reporter for the Fact Checker, argue, the latter half of this statement is misleading and worthy of Two Pinocchios, as it “can leave the impression that no background checks are required at gun shows.” In reality, federally licensed gun vendors are required to perform a background check. While data on unlicensed retailers is sparse, such sellers will likely conduct sales without background checks or adequate documentation, which the White House claimed was Biden’s point.
In the same article, Kessler and Rizzo contested Biden’s remark that “the only industry in America, a billion-dollar industry that can’t be sued — has been exempt from being sued — are gun manufacturers.” The fact-checkers argue that while the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act “generally shields gun manufacturers and dealers from having to face lawsuits over violent crimes committed with the weapons they sell,” the law does contain exceptions, so Biden’s statement is false.
Soon after, Kessler subjected one of the president’s claims about crime rates to scrutiny. In the context of a discussion of the Violence Against Women Act, Biden claimed, “The average rapist rapes about six times.” Kessler noted that Biden’s assertion was derived from a study of a college campus for the years 1991 through 1997, which found that “repeat rapists each committed an average of six rapes and/or attempted rapes.” Kessler spoke to five different social scientists in the piece, and noted that the figure Biden cited has been disputed by several leading academics and pertained to college campuses, not the general population. For using disputed figures and misstating the population being measured, Kessler awarded Biden Three Pinocchios.
While fact-checkers are sometimes prone to mistakes or biased reporting, as all media outlets are, it’s important to evaluate their work honestly and give credit where credit is due. The Washington Post has been fair in criticizing the president’s misstatements, and we hope to see this continue.