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Fact Checking Failure in Five Easy Steps

Glenn Kessler's nose is growing.

4:03 PM, Feb 8, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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I've already written at length on the major media's "fact checkers" and, alas, it's a never ending game of whack-a-mole to point out the absurdity of the arguments employed by these self-appointed guardians of veracity.

And so the Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler emerges from the mire of truthiness to once again to kick dirt in the face of the obvious with his post on the Center for Union Facts's Super Bowl ad. If you didn't already see the ad, you can watch it here, but the basic gist of it is this claim: "Only ten percent of people in unions today actually voted to join the union."

Kessler awards this three out of four Pinocchios for being dishonest. Now you can plow through about 600 words of argumentative prestidigitation explaining why it's unfair to cite this statistic, but let's just skip ahead to the part of Kessler's conclusion where the record scratches:

In the end, this is a nonsense fact. On its face, it may be technically correct...

For people that profess to suss out facts, boy do fact checkers love shading the truth. It's not "technically correct"—it's just correct. The only technical aspects here are the selective arguments that Kessler employs to claim that, despite the fact that most union members have no say in paying dues to unions that may not represent their vocational and political interests, they would still gladly support their union if it were a voluntary matter.

After parading through a variety of information about worker attitudes toward unions, including citing one survey that reports "unionized workers strongly support their unions, and that the vast majority would vote to retain them in an election for union representation," Kessler writes:

Ultimately, the Center’s statistic tells us little about worker attitudes about unions. The NLRB reports show that when there is a vote, workers usually vote to form a union. They also have the option of decertifying a union or changing their union leadership. The only thing that this statistic tells us is how many workers are still in their jobs from that original union vote.

Kessler makes it sound like workers generally tend to like unions, because workers are still voting to form unions and don't decertify them as much. This does not take into account how often labor laws are absurdly stacked against employers and workers who oppose unionization, or that unions have an illustrious history of corruption and threatening behavior when it comes to ensuring the results of workplace elections or avoiding decertification. But the basic unavoidable fact he doesn't engage is unionism is in steep decline—in the middle of the 20th century private-sector unionism was around 35 percent. It's now at 6.9 percent.

Now much of that change is surely due to broader economic factors and/or unionization making industries uncompetitive, but it's pretty hard to argue that on some level millions in the labor force didn't decide union membership was no longer in their best interest. (The fact that most union members are now in the public sector is not exactly a ringing endorsement for unionism being in anyone's economic interest.) Kessler does rightly note that in recent years union membership has been somewhat stable, so maybe we are getting down to the bone and the percentage of unionized workers remaining really is strongly pro-union.

But, what if—and this is a crazy suggestion here—some nontrivial percentage of current union workers don't actually want to pay union dues, but they do it anyway because they need a job and it's a condition of employment? Now how could we move beyond the realm of dubious academic surveys and find out if it really is the case that union workers "strongly support" their union despite the fact that 90 percent of them never voted to join it? If, as Kessler says, "[National Labor Relations Board] reports show consistent support for unions when the matter has been put to a vote through the NLRB process," why not let workers reaffirm that they wish to remain in unions or, better yet, allow them to pay dues voluntarily? Of course, that's unlikely to happen because unions have gone to war repeatedly in the last few years to protect compulsory unionism.

This seems to be the really, really obvious point the Center for Union Facts is raising, and Kessler dutifully ignores this while sitting astride his altitudinous steed accusing the organization of spouting "nonsense." 

But he's a lot more unfair to the Center for Union Facts than that. He starts the piece off with a good bit of thinly-veiled character assassination. Here's how he identifies the group right at the beginning of the piece:

The Center for Union Facts is part of a web of pro-corporate organizations run by Rick Berman, who has also battled Mothers Against Drunk Driving, disputed evidence regarding mercury levels in fish and countered a perceived link between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity. His Web Site features a 60 Minutes profile in which he says, “I do get paid for educating people; if that’s my biggest crime, I stand accused.”  (A more negative take on the Berman enterprise can be found here.)

Suffice to say, he does not offer a link to a more positive take on what the organization does, and his link goes to an expose by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—a group founded and run by a longtime Democratic operative and that most people acknowledge has something of a left-leaning tilt. I have no desire to defend Berman, who may or may not run a mercenary PR machine, and if you want to identify his organization as such, fine. But the not-so-subtle suggestion his organizations are enabling drunk drivers to plow over your children, poisoning the food supply, and making you fat is a bit much—not to mention totally irrelevant to substance of their claim, which, again, Kessler admits is "technically correct."

It also belies the fact that the sources used to attack Berman are equally, if not more, biased. Aside from the Center for Union Facts's J. Justin Wilson, only two other people are quoted, both of which condemn the Center for Union Facts's claim: Jared Bernstein and Richard Freeman. Jared Bernstein is identified by Kessler as "a former economist for the Labor Department now with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities." Freeman is identified as a nearly unimpeachable source—he's "a professor at Harvard University and one of the leading labor economists in the country."

That is only half the story, to put it mildly. Bernstein is the former president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which might be Big Labor's favorite think tank—for instance, it has worked directly with the SEIU and AFL-CIO on many policy issues and labor unions are one of EPI's biggest sources of funding. As a result, there's no union policy too outlandish that it won't strenuously advocate. Among other things, EPI and nation's two largest unions have been pushing for Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs), which effectively do away with 401(k) plans and force you into a government managed retirement system, because this is seen as way to bail out insolvent union retirement plans that are billions in debt. 

When Bernstein worked in vice president Joe Biden's office, he helped put together the White House's "Annual Report of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class." But oddly, even though unions make up a small percentage of the middle class workforce, the entire report was a policy wish list for unions. The report advocates rewriting federal contracting rules to favor unions; "card check," a.k.a. the elimination of secret ballots in union elections; project labor agreements; pleas to enforce labor standards; the creation of a "National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force"; and, yes, GRAs.

So Bernstein is hardly some benign former Labor Department economist toiling away at some innocuously named think tank. He's a pro-union activist of the highest order. Which brings me to Richard Freeman. Now Kessler doesn't just quote Freeman, he also generously cites his academic research—he's the source of the survey claiming "unionized workers strongly support their unions."

Freeman also happens to write policy papers for [drumroll please]... the Economic Policy Institute! He's not some dispassionate academic who goes where the numbers take him, either. For instance, he was one of three people that put together a public petition signed by a bunch of other academics insisting that the elimination of secret ballots in workplace elections "is needed to restore balance in the labor market." Now given that card check legislation proved to be a non-starter even when Democrats controlled congress following Obama's election, Freeman is way out on the left here.

Maybe Freeman's work as labor economist is reliable enough, though the stuff Kessler cited by him isn't exactly convincing or particularly relevant to the point the Center for Union Facts was making. And similarly, Bernstein is not ignorant of the issues here. But if you're going to go out of your way to identify Berman and the Center for Union Facts as unreliable corporate shills, you ought to at least acknowledge the sources you're using to impugn them can pretty accurately be described as committed and ideological pro-union partisans. (Note that this is not the first time Kessler has employed very selective and dubious sourcing.)

So to sum up, here's the basic outline of what Kessler did here:

1) Raise the issue of a specific claim made by a pro-corporate group about the percentage of union members who actually voted for the union that represents them.

2) Attack the source of that claim in a manner totally unrelated to the substance of the claim.

3) Unconvincingly attack the claim on the substance by using rather selective and argumentative evidence from sources that he fails to identify as being extremely pro-union.

4) Concede that the claim is "technically correct" in the piece's conclusion.

5) Give the claim three out of four Pinnochios for not telling the truth.

This is what the major media proudly calls "fact checking." I think most reasonable people would conclude it's misleading and deceptive, if not outright dishonest.

UPDATE: In an friendly email, Kessler does note two objections to my piece. One is that he did link to Berman's own site for a more favorable review of his work. Somehow when I cut and pasted the excerpt, that link got lost. A fair objection, but one that doesn't begin to make up for the fact that Berman was framed in an unduly negative light unrelated to the substance of Center for Union Facts's claim.

His second point is that he did link to bios of Jared Bernstein and Richard Freeman, supposedly to give readers something of an idea of who he was sourcing. However, neither link to Bernstein's official bio on the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website or Freeman's Harvard faculty page begins to explain the necessary context of how entrenched these two men are with unions.

Finally, if I've been unsparing in my criticism of Glenn Kessler, that's largely because as an emerging form of journalism I find "fact checking" irredeemably biased and inherently flawed as it's popularly practiced. That said, Glenn Kessler should be given some credit for updating his item to note my objections. As far as I can tell, he's been more receptive to criticism than the other major fact checkers.

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