In the week leading up to Sen. Tim Scott’s response to President Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress, The Washington Post’s chief fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, decided it was high time someone looked into whether the South Carolina Republican had really gone “from cotton to Congress.”
The answer: Yeah, they had, but it wasn’t like they had it that hard. After all, the piece argued, Scott’s grandfather may have dropped out of elementary school and never learned to read, as Scott said, but the senator’s great-great-grandfather “once owned 900 acres in South Carolina,” which was seen as “a mark of distinction in the Black community at the time.”
Furthermore, Scott’s grandfather may have worked at picking cotton, but it was on his father’s farm, which “was expanded through land acquisitions even during the Great Depression, when many other Black farmers were forced out of business.”
Sounds a bit like someone’s grandfather started life on third and thought he hit a triple. Scott’s laying it on a bit thick, wouldn’t you say?
Unfortunately, no, people wouldn’t say. Kessler’s “fact check” was roundly criticized on the conservative side of the aisle and you couldn’t even find many liberals willing to come to its defense, in spite of the fact virtually any and every calumny was fair game in the wake of Scott’s Wednesday speech.
Scott even mentioned Kessler’s piece during his response speech Wednesday: “Just last week, a national newspaper suggested my family’s poverty was actually privilege because a relative owned land generations before my time.”
Senator Tim Scott goes after the Washington Post’s fact check on his grandfather’s history of picking cotton.
“Last week a national newspaper suggested my family’s poverty was actually privilege.” pic.twitter.com/wCeLtTbxwj
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) April 29, 2021
However, NPR’s “All Things Considered” gave Kessler a softball opportunity to defend his fact check during an eight-minute interview last week — and he still came off looking misguided and petty.
Kessler began by defending the fact check because “origin stories” are important for politicians, but “sometimes it gets a little too tidy for political consumption, so that makes it interesting in terms of fact-checking.”
“The article acknowledges that Sen. Scott may not have known his full family history and that the census records regarding the lives of black Americans can be inconsistent,” Kessler said.
“But some critics have twisted that appropriate caution to suggest that all of the documentation in the article is suspect. I also obtained property and other records that expanded on information in the census, and those records are not in dispute. And those property records show how much land his great-grandfather purchased. And he appears to have been one of the biggest landowners, white or black, in Aiken County at the time.”
Kessler added he sent Scott’s staff the information he’d found and “told his staff I was not trying to play gotcha.”
“I was being completely transparent. And I even sent them a detailed list of every question I hoped he would answer,” Kessler said. “Ultimately, they said he was too busy to talk to me.”
Yes, because one suspects Scott’s staff understood better than Kessler did that The Washington Post’s official face of fact-checking was about to suffer a nasty self-inflicted wound and weren’t inclined to stop him in the process. The fact he’d relate this to NPR as if it were exculpatory is telling.
Martin offered him a bit of a lifesaver, asking Kessler, “Why would a story about your ancestors being successful, especially at a time when the odds were so stacked against them, be viewed as a negative thing?”
No thanks, Kessler said — he preferred swimming in the flood, responding that Scott’s “story of coming from virtually nothing to the heights of the Senate” was still “a bit too tidy for popular consumption.”
“If I had been able to talk to him, I would have — you know, he was 10 or 11 when his great-grandfather died, so I was curious if he had ever visited this farm and what his impressions of it were. You know — and, in fact, I could only — for the great-great-grandfather, he says he had 900 acres. I could only find records for about 170 acres,” Kessler said.
“So I was wondering if that was a bit of family lore. And, you know, he says his grandfather could not read or write, but the records indicate that his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather could read and write. So those were inconsistencies there, and maybe that’s a little uncomfortable for him to talk about.”
At one point during the eight-minute interview does Kessler seem to have some kind of brief moment of clarity — or at least self-awareness — saying that life in the “Jim Crow South” wasn’t particularly easy for any black person.
That moment of clarity came, however, as he blamed the outrage over his piece on conservative media.
“I think a lot of this is just politics. I mean, the word racist, which appeared in a number of right-wing publications, it seems to be intended to make a reporter think twice about conducting a detailed examination of Sen. Scott or his background,” Kessler said.
“We investigate the backgrounds of white politicians all the time. And certainly someone who is a potential candidate for president or vice president should expect a high degree of scrutiny,” he continued. “But I have to admit, I was really surprised by the intensity of the reaction, much of which was fanned by Fox News.”
He added that it was “not a very good day for me to see that spread with such vehemence across the internet. And there was — not in any way did I ever suggest in the piece that Scott’s great-grandfather lived a privileged life. I mean, after all, this is the Jim Crow South we’re talking about.”
Yes, and Marc Antony only came to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Furthermore, Antony would never suggest Brutus was anything other than an honorable man. Right-wing Roman media got things so twisted; if it weren’t for demagogic hosts on Foxus Newsus, we’d all rightly remember Antony was just a disinterested fact-checker. This kind of fake news was why friends, Romans and countrymen wouldn’t lend trustworthy journalists their ear.
It’s worth noting that after all of Kessler’s census-digging and “Finding Your Roots”-esque genealogical speculation, Scott’s “too-tidy” origin story isn’t left any more untidied.
There are three statements by Scott at the beginning of the article that Kessler purports to fact-check. They all tell materially the same story about Scott’s grandfather: He dropped out of elementary school to pick cotton on the farm and couldn’t read or write.
Kessler found that Scott’s grandfather dropped out of elementary school, picked cotton on the family farm and found no evidence that he could read or write. But he owned some land, had dropped out to pick cotton on a farm his father owned and relatives who could read and write. Not that Kessler’s trying to say Scott’s grandfather was privileged or anything, he’s just saying.
And then, as Kessler closed, he offered another rationalization for the piece: that he “was able to put Sen. Scott’s family in [the] context” of “the story of black farmers in the South and how many lost their land because of the advantages the whites took.”
Scott’s grandfather wasn’t able to read and write, but we can — which is why we know that whopper’s worth “Four Pinocchios” on The Washington Post’s ratings system for fibbing.
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