Jeff Bezos this week announced that he is stepping down from his job running Amazon in order to focus more on his other assets, including the Washington Post. Less than twenty-four hours later, his newspaper’s chief “fact checker” Glenn Kessler published a screed attacking Bezos’s highest-profile political opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, for mentioning that Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law benefited rich people and large corporations.
This might seem like a simple example of a pundit knowing exactly who pays his salary, but in this case, the pundit in question has his own axe to grind. Kessler is the scion of a fossil fuel baron, which means he has an interest in defending tax cuts that were a particularly big financial windfall for oil companies, including the one linked to his family, according to Kessler’s own newspaper.
At a time when Americans’ trust in media has plummeted, Kessler is a perfect illustration of how the cottage industry of fact-checking has turned itself into a system of Orwellian misinformation — one that uses fact-o-meters and Pinocchios to insist that war is peace and ignorance is strength.
Rather than clarifying reality, fact-checking is routinely used to hide the truth and shield the powerful from accountability — it has helped politicians hide their votes to cut Social Security; let health care industry lobbyists distort statistics about medical bankruptcies and Medicare for All; and abetted Wall Street’s efforts to downplay bank bailouts.
Now, comes the crescendo: The newspaper owned by a man worth $180 billion is deploying fact-checking to try to revise the entire history of the tax cuts that enriched his retail conglomerate. And what a coincidence — the revision is happening just as the tax policy may be revisited by a new Democratic president.
Not surprisingly, this particular broadside is being directed at Sanders, arguably the most prominent critic of Bezos and Amazon in all of American politics. He introduced legislation to shame the company for its labor practices, he successfully pressured the company to raise its workers’ wages, and has championed legislation to tax billionaires.
Bezos’s company has responded by attacking the Vermont senator — and now his newspaper is trying to reinforce those attacks under the deceptive guise of fact-checking, all as it warns readers on every story that democracy dies in darkness.
324 Billion Pinocchios
At issue is Sanders’s innocuous water-is-wet comment on CNN this week, in which he correctly said “my Republican colleagues voted for almost $2 trillion in tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations.”
These aren’t controversial comments at all — and yet Kessler jumped at the chance to award Sanders’s indisputable statement “three Pinocchios” because “the share of the tax cuts for the top 1 percent was not as much as the share they pay in taxes” and because “most people would see an overall reduction in taxes.”
In essence, Sanders was declared a liar because some serfs received a few crumbs, which supposedly proves that most of the loaf didn’t go to the nobility.
Kessler’s entire line of argument deserves about 324 billion Pinocchios — one for each dollar that flowed to the richest fifth of the country in just 2020 alone, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The group’s analysis shows that almost three-quarters of the tax cuts flowed to that cohort.
Those findings echoed data from the Tax Foundation, which noted that “the income group that will see the largest increase in after-tax income in 2018 is the top 1 percent.”
The Tax Policy Center similarly reported that tax cuts boosted the income of the richest households eight times more than they boosted the income of the poorest households. The center projected the lowest quintile of earners, comprising 27 percent of Americans, would see an average tax cut of $60, while the top 0.1 percent of earners would receive an average tax cut of $193,000.
Oh, and within a year of the tax cut bill’s passage, twice as many major corporations were paying a zero effective tax rate — and that included Amazon, the retail giant founded by the Washington Post’s owner.
If those sources don’t adequately underscore Kessler’s mendacity, then just go to the Washington Post’s own reporting when the tax cuts were moving through Congress in 2017. Back then, the newspaper’s journalists accurately reported:
• “Most of the benefits go to the wealthy and large corporations.”
• In a piece headlined “9 Ways Trump’s Tax Plan Is a Gift to the Rich,” the Post reported that “it gives an outright tax cut to the wealthiest Americans and it preserves almost all of the most popular loopholes they use to reduce their tax bills.”
• In a report entitled “The Trump Tax Cuts Would Be the Most Insane Giveaway to the Rich Ever,” the Post reprinted this shocking table and pointed out that by 2027: “The top 1 percent would get 79.7 percent of all the Trump tax cuts at that point. To put that in perspective, the even more rarefied top 0.1 percent, who make an average of a few million dollars a year, would receive almost twice as many dollars worth of tax cuts as the bottom 99 percent would combined.”
Kessler accidentally admitted some of this in his fact-check demonizing Sanders. At one point, he acknowledged that “the biggest beneficiaries of the pass-through deduction were the top 5 percent of individual taxpayers.” But he predicated his Sanders slander on the idea that “any broad-based tax cut is going to mostly benefit the wealthy because they already pay a large share of income taxes.” He added: “In any broad-based tax cut, the wealthy will end up with more money from tax cuts because they already pay a larger share of taxes.”
Those latter points are actually correct — they prove the veracity of Sanders’s assertion by explaining precisely how the Trump tax cuts delivered a disproportionate amount of the tax breaks to the rich. Trump’s bill deliberately slashed marginal tax rates, which then funneled money up the income ladder, just as the Vermont senator said.
The implication from Kessler is that tax reforms can only disproportionately benefit the wealthy — as if regressive marginal rate cuts are the only possible tax policy. Fact-check: false.
Kessler quite obviously likes regressive tax cuts — he approves of legislation that enriches his fellow aristocrats, and look, he has every right to hold that grotesque view. However, just because he likes tax policy that mostly enriches wealthy people, that doesn’t mean a lawmaker is lying when he says that such a tax policy does indeed enrich the affluent.
Kessler is entitled to his own opinions — but he shouldn’t be given a platform to abjectly lie about facts and slander public officials just because he does not like them. And at minimum, if he is given that platform, it shouldn’t be one emblazoned with the “fact-checking” emblem.
“This Is An Important Institution”
This gets to the real issue here — the systemic problem is less the hideous anti-tax zealotry, and more the machine that is constantly laundering such ideology and presenting it as fact.
If a pundit wants to write an op-ed defending regressive reductions in tax rates and criticizing a senator, that’s fine. But something far more sinister happened here.
In this episode, we saw that the newspaper owned by one of the world’s richest men was not publishing an op-ed branded as one pundit’s opinion — instead, the paper knowingly shrouded hard-edged, fact-free, billionaire-defending ideology in the cloak of just-the-facts-ma’am impartiality right on its news pages. And this wasn’t this some one-off — a report last year from Monash University researcher Andrew Moshirnia documented Kessler’s long track record of ever-more-unhinged and inaccurate diatribes.
These dogmatic polemics were all published under the banner of dispassionate fact-checking, as Post editors berate reporters for expressing their opinions and enforce rigid social media guidelines in order to project an air of objectivity.
Couple Kessler’s latest tirade with the Post’s skewed reporting and editorials on the economic debate in Congress, and the decidedly not objective message from Bezos’s megaphone is loud, deliberate, and self-serving: Giving starving people $2,000 (or $1,400) checks gratuitously benefits people who supposedly don’t need money, but handing the richest sliver of the country hundreds of billions of dollars of tax breaks is a pragmatic, common-sense policy that deserves the fact-checker’s coveted seal of approval.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Bezos is calling Kessler (or anyone else) ordering them to write things. But clearly, try-hards like Kessler know who they work for and aim to please the boss — even if everyone in the media industry feigns fainting spells anytime anyone even hints that there might be a connection between a newspaper owner’s agenda and the newspaper’s coverage (remember this fake controversy over Sanders’s obviously true statement?).
In the case of the Post, the link between owner and newsroom is out in the open: Bezos reportedly meets with Post executives, shares business advice with Bob Woodward, and has insinuated that he purchased the newspaper for more than just business reasons.
“I said to myself, ‘If this were a financially upside down salty snack food company, the answer would be no,” he said about buying the paper. “But as soon as I started thinking about it that way, it was like, ‘This is an important institution.’ It is the newspaper in the capital city in the most important country in the world.”
As an instrument of influence in the seat of government, Bezos’s newspaper does not want to be brutally honest with its readers about its devotion to Kessler’s hatred of the Left in general and Sanders in specific. The newspaper does not have the guts or the integrity to just admit it is paying a pundit — not a Joe Friday-esque fact-checker, but a Fox News–style opinionist — to make extremist and highly subjective arguments about who should benefit from public policies.
Being forthright about that might undermine the Post’s brand, and thereby risk influence and credibility. And so instead, Bezos’s newspaper is trying to smuggle the extremism into the discourse and into readers’ minds by stuffing it into the costume of objective “fact-checking.”
That kind of slimy subterfuge is wildly, offensively dishonest — especially because the particular disguise is so powerful.
Today, any news outlet with a legacy brand can slap the phrase “fact-check” on any pundit’s pile of disingenuous horseshit and it will inevitably appear in an attack ad and whip around social media as allegedly ironclad proof that something is true or false. And in the 24 / 7 new cycle’s miasma of disinformation, these nuggets of “fact-checking” are seen as the rare signal in the noise — the last bits of verified truth that can be unquestionably trusted.
But Kessler and his ilk prove that much fact-checking absolutely cannot be relied on. Preying on the public’s understandable desperation for some reliable arbiter of truth, these bad-faith actors have turned the entire “fact-checking” brand into the misinformation era’s single most deceitful weapon of all.
The old saying used to be that there were “lies, damn lies, and statistics” — but in today’s dystopia, there are lies, damn lies, and fact-checking.