Washington Post fact-checker gets skewered for its botched attack on Bernie Sanders' trillion-dollar bailout claim

Washington Post fact-checker gets skewered for its botched attack on Bernie Sanders' trillion-dollar bailout claim
Gage Skidmore

Progressive critics accused Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler of cherry-picking evidence, playing semantic games, and obscuring the truth on Monday after he said Sen. Bernie Sanders inflated the amount of taxpayer bailout money Wall Street received following the 2008 financial crisis.


Kessler took issue with a line the Vermont Independent and 2020 presidential contender often includes in his stump speeches: "Not one major Wall Street executive went to jail for destroying our economy in 2008 as a result of their greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior. No. They didn't go to jail. They got a trillion-dollar bailout."

Dismissing the trillion-dollar figure as "a nice round number" that is "not borne out by the facts," Kessler added up the amount of aid major banks received through the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Even under an expansive definition of Wall Street, Kessler asserted, the bailout amounted to "just over $500 billion—or half a trillion." Under the Post's vaguely defined scoring system, Kessler rewarded Sanders with two "Pinocchios."

But Sanders' team and other critics were quick to argue that Kessler's focus on TARP funds was overly narrow and neglected emergency loans from the Federal Reserve that amounted to trillions of dollars in bailout money that kept Wall Street afloat.

"If anything, Senator Sanders has underestimated the size of the post-crisis bailouts," Arianna Jones, a spokeswoman for Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, told the Post. Jones pointed to several studies and news reports showing that Fed loans exceeded a trillion dollars and may have been as high as $29 trillion.

"Sorry, Wall Street got a MULTI-trillion bailout," tweeted Warren Gunnels, Sanders' staff director.

A 2011 study (pdf) from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which Kessler quotes in his piece, concluded that loans from the Fed "peaked at more than $1 trillion in late 2008."

Gunnels highlighted this figure and others in a series of tweets:

Responding to Jones' rebuttal, Kessler—who sparked outrage last year after his error-riddled Medicare for All "fact-check"—argued that "there is a definitional issue about what one considers a bailout" and suggested that loans from the Fed may not fit his definition.

This argument sparked ridicule on social media, with critics accusing Kessler of playing word games to score cheap points at the expense of factual accuracy.

"This is a total embarrassment for the Washington Post," HuffPost reporter Zach Carter tweeted. "This gets to the heart of the problem with Glenn's operation. The piece portends to be an exercise in empirical rigor and mathematical precision. But he's really just playing games with semantics and definitions. And people who understand the issues he 'fact-checks' can see it."

Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, added: "if they had any shame, they would be ashamed."

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