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Saturday, July 20, 2024

For WaPo’s Feared ‘Pinocchio’ Fact Checker, Forthrightness Dies in ‘Updates’ to Biden-Burisma Story

(By Paul Sperry, RealClear Wire) For the second time in three years, the Washington Post has quietly “updated” one of the most consequential fact checks in the history of American politics – its October 2020 article undercutting reports that Hunter Biden arranged a dinner meeting between one of his foreign business clients and his father, who was then vice president of the United States.

The original article by the Washington Post’s chief fact checker, Glenn Kessler, was published the same day as the New York Post’s pre-election scoop revealing that Joe Biden had attended a 2015 dinner with a top executive of a Ukrainian energy firm, Burisma, which was paying his son $83,000 per month. Kessler’s fact-check involved interviews with a host of Biden aides who vehemently disputed the vice president’s attendance at the dinner and advanced the theory that the source of the information – a laptop Hunter had abandoned at a Delaware repair shop – was untrustworthy and possibly a Russian plant.

That conspiracy theory was quickly embraced by 51 former intelligence officials, who signed an open letter dismissing the New York Post’s scoop as having “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” This letter and the Washington Post fact check were used by the Biden campaign, other media outlets, and social media platforms to discredit the information contained on the laptop in the final days of the campaign. The article, Kessler would later boast, was “one of the most read articles in our 13-year history” of the fact-checking feature.

But Kessler’s fact check has not aged well. Just last week Hunter Biden’s former business partner, Devon Archer, testified before Congress that the article was “not correct reporting.” Instead of retracting the article – as the Post did with some of its debunked Russiagate coverage – or running a straightforward correction, the paper has appended a series of “updates” to its reporting.

“The Washington Post and other media have tried to squelch the scandal of Joe Biden potentially using his high office to enrich himself and his family,” said a congressional investigator for a GOP-led committee. “Almost nobody is fact-checking these biased fact checkers, and they carry a lot of weight and authority.”

In his original article, “Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: An explainer,” Kessler took the Biden camp’s word that the then-vice president never met senior Burisma official Vadym Pozharskyi on April 16, 2015, and didn’t even attend the dinner in question at a Georgetown restaurant. Kessler also expressed open doubts about the authenticity of the laptop. Kessler wrote that the New York Post stories “purportedly” came from a Hunter Biden laptop “supposedly” left at a repair shop. Quoting an author of a book on disinformation, Kessler also questioned the authenticity of the emails on the laptop. The specific email in question – the New York Post called it a “smoking gun” – was an April 17 message from Pozharskyi thanking Hunter Biden for the “opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together.”

“Officials who worked for Biden at the time told The Fact Checker that no such meeting took place,” Kessler asserted, noting that it was not listed on the former vice president’s schedule and that it was unlikely Biden even went to the restaurant.

After the election, with Biden in office, and as more details about the dinner trickled in over the next several months, the Washington Post on June 7, 2021, appended Kessler’s story with a note that the article had been ”updated.” It linked to a revised version, which carried the headline, “Hunter Biden’s laptop: The April 16, 2015, dinner.”

In the new article, Kessler acknowledged Biden did, in fact, go to the 2015 dinner, which was held at the Cafe Milano in Georgetown. But he insisted “there was less to the story than one might imagine.”

Kessler quoted Biden allies who said the vice president had “only dropped by briefly,” and only to say hello to a personal friend tied to a Biden family charity, adding that Biden “didn’t even sit down” at the table with his son. He cast doubt that Vadym Pozharskyi, the Burisma executive, was part of the group – even though New York Post reporter Miranda Devine pointed out to Kessler through Twitter that a “Vadym” was on the guest list Hunter sent to Archer before the event. Devine called Kessler’s reporting “sloppy.”

However, Kessler stopped short of conceding he’d been burned by Team Biden. For the next two years, he and the Washington Post stubbornly hewed to his original story, albeit with some alterations, that the dinner was much ado about nothing and that Republicans were falsely trying to tie Biden to his son’s corrupt Ukrainian benefactor.

But transcripts released last week reveal that Archer, who sat on the Burisma board with Hunter and attended the Cafe Milano dinner, confirmed the New York Post’s reporting about the event.

In a recent deposition before the House Oversight Committee, Archer testified that not only did Pozharskyi attend the dinner, but so did Biden – and not just for a brief “drop-by,” as Kessler claimed in the revised, 2021 version of his story. Archer recalled the vice president sat down and stayed for the dinner, which was held in a private room in the back of the restaurant.

After Democratic lawmakers and lawyers quizzed him about the Washington Post story, Archer said “that’s not correct reporting.”

Asked last Thursday if the paper still stands behind Kessler’s story, Washington Post spokeswoman Kathy Baird told RealClearInvestigations that the paper was addressing Archer’s revelations. “Following up on your earlier inquiry,” she said, “this piece has now been updated.”

In the latest version, published Aug. 3, Kessler added a parenthetical “update” several paragraphs into the piece that Archer in his deposition “disputed” the recollections of Kessler’s Biden sources about the dinner. In another update inserted later in the story, Kessler acknowledged that “Archer told investigators [Burisma official] Pozharskyi attended the dinner.” (This was an update of a previous update.) Finally, at the end of the story, Kessler again cited Archer’s interview to correct his earlier reporting about a dinner attendee who did not in fact attend the function. But he referred to it as an “update,” instead of a correction.

In its related 2020 story, the Post appended another correction masquerading as an “update” at the bottom of Kessler’s piece, which noted that the laptop Kessler implied was “disinformation” had in fact been authenticated.

All told, the Post has run six corrections across its original and revised Kessler stories about the laptop emails and the Biden-Burisma dinner.

Baird declined to answer whether the Post’s designated fact-checker was too trusting of his Biden sources. Though documented evidence was available at the time, Kessler took the word of Biden’s aides over contemporaneous emails and texts contradicting what they told him. Most facts were always there. It was only when the facts were amplified by government hearings, reports and depositions, as well as other news sites and Twitter, that Kessler revised his analysis – while still resisting calling his revisions “corrections.”

Despite the rolling disclosures reaching a critical mass, the Post has not published a separate news story examining its own errors, which misinformed voters ahead of the November 2020 presidential election and continued to mislead the public deep into the Biden presidency.

Republican lawmakers say the Post’s inaccurate and misleading “fact-checking” is a microcosm of how the Washington press corps has been ignoring evidence of Biden family influence-peddling and corruption, which they say has had a chilling effect on criminal investigations. Media coverage often drives investigations into public corruption as well the appointment of independent prosecutors when there is a political conflict, as in the case of the Biden-controlled Justice Department looking into the Biden family. But not during this administration.

The Post’s influential Fact Checker staff brands stories or public statements it deems false or misleading with “Pinocchios.” A fact-check that earns one Pinocchio “shades the facts,” according to the newspaper’s criteria, while one garnering four Pinocchios is condemned as a “whopper.” Democrats and political commentators routinely cite Kessler’s findings to
bolster – or impugn – politicians or points of view.

By his own measure, Kessler’s Biden-Burisma dinner story containing significant factual errors would have earned four Pinocchios.

The Washington Post began running Kessler’s The Fact Checker as a permanent feature in 2011. Now with its own team, including researchers and videographers (working with a $250,000 grant from Google News Initiative/YouTube to expand production of video fact checks), the award-winning feature is part of the Post’s national-news section led by Matea Gold, who last year had to recuse herself from DOJ and FBI coverage over a personal conflict, as RCI first reported. Gold is married to FBI chief of staff Jonathan Lenzner.

In 2023, Kessler was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi award for a series of fact checks in 2022 concerning claims about Hunter Biden. In its announcement, the Society of Professional Journalists remarked that Kessler had provided “a very detailed, balanced analysis of a complicated and horrifically convoluted story that spawned a thousand rumors and falsehoods.”

Kessler, who co-authored the book, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies, portrays himself as a neutral arbiter of truth in journalism. He promises his Fact Checker readers that he “will strive to be dispassionate and non-partisan, drawing attention to inaccurate statements on both left and right.”

“Consistent with Washington Post policy,” Kessler added, “no one working on The Fact Checker may engage in partisan political activity or make contributions to candidates or advocacy organizations.”

A search of the Federal Election Commission database does not turn up political contributions made by Kessler. However, FEC records reveal that his wife, Cynthia J. “Cindy” Rich, has donated more than $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic candidates, including Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. She gave a total of $5,700 to Biden for President and the Biden Victory Fund in 2020. Rich, who gives exclusively to Democrats, previously worked in Bill Clinton’s administration as a policy adviser on commerce and trade.

Kessler was raised in a liberal Democrat household. Kessler’s late mother, Else Bolotin, was a “committed Democrat,” according to a family friend, who started an “Institute for Social Change” in Lexington, Ky., when Kessler lived there in the 1970s. Records show she founded the institute with ‘70s radical Allie Hendricks, a “socialist feminist” who supported a “collective” of fellow travelers dubbed the “Lexington Six” after the FBI investigated them for allegedly harboring left-wing terrorists wanted by the FBI for helping kill a cop during a bank robbery.

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