The Washington Post’s lead “Fact Checker” columnist did not accurately recount public officials' statement when he tried to discredit reporting about a 10-year-old rape victim, according to emails obtained by The Lever.
Last month, the Post’s Glenn Kessler, who has led the paper’s Fact Checker column since 2011, wrote a widely-shared column questioning the sourcing behind a viral news story about an Ohio child who traveled to Indiana for an abortion after being raped. The column was amplified by conservative media outlets as alleged proof that progressives were exaggerating the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Days later, a man was arrested for committing the crime — further substantiating the original reporting and debunking Kessler’s column. The arrest was made after Franklin County Children Services in Columbus, Ohio, referred the matter to the police.
Kessler’s Fact Checker column originally claimed that none of the county officials he contacted “were aware of such a case in their areas.” He hastily updated his column to say, “Unlike similar Ohio county agencies we contacted, Franklin County officials did not offer a response."
Neither of these statements were accurate: Emails obtained by The Lever through an open records request indicate that Franklin County Children Services responded to Kessler’s outreach promptly, and informed Kessler that their agency could not comment on specific cases, because this information is treated as confidential under Ohio law.
The Post added a correction to Kessler’s column on Monday after The Lever contacted the paper about these discrepancies.
“A previous version of this update said that Franklin County officials did not respond to a query about whether a referral had been made,” the paper wrote. “In fact, an email the county spokeswoman sent was inadvertently missed during the reporting. This piece has been updated with her response that the agency was prohibited from sharing information regarding specific cases.”
Kessler did not respond to The Lever’s request for comment.
“A One-Source Story”
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star reported on the immediate, human repercussions of the Supreme Court decision invalidating federal protections for abortion rights.
In the story, Dr. Caitlin Bernard recounted having recently performed an abortion for a 10-year-old child, who was forced to travel to Indiana for the procedure after an Ohio law banning abortions after six weeks, with no exceptions for rape victims, went into effect.
After President Joe Biden highlighted the story, conservatives quickly started questioning the report. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial headlined, “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) claimed that “there is not a damn scintilla of evidence” to the story.
Their efforts were given legitimacy by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker section, which published a column from Kessler entitled: “A one-source story about a 10-year-old and an abortion goes viral.”
Kessler expressed a hearty dose of skepticism of the Star’s sourcing, writing: “The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She’s on the record, but there is no indication that the newspaper made other attempts to confirm her account.”
As Vice has pointed out, “While the anecdote was sourced solely to Bernard, a doctor speaking on the record about a medical procedure she had firsthand knowledge of meets most reputable publications’ threshold for credibility.”
In a subsequent exchange with Nieman Lab, Kessler attempted to rationalize his skepticism by characterizing Bernard — the doctor who performed the abortion at the center of this national story — as “an activist in one side of the debate.”
His skepticism about Bernard was apparent in the email he sent to Franklin County Children Services. Kessler wrote: “You may have seen the reports about a 10-year-old who was raped and needed an abortion and was forced to travel to Indiana. The article is based on a statement by a doctor who claims to have treated the child but no other information was provided.”
“Prohibited From Sharing Information”
Sourcing questions aside, the emails exchanged between Kessler and Franklin County Children Services raise questions about how he characterized his conversations.
Kessler initially wrote in his column: "As a spot check, we contacted child services agencies in some of Ohio’s most populous cities, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo. None of the officials we reached were aware of such a case in their areas."
After the Columbus Dispatch published reporting confirming the original Star story, Kessler added in an addendum: "Unlike similar Ohio county agencies we contacted, Franklin County officials did not offer a response."
Neither of these statements were accurate.
Kessler emailed the agency on July 7 around 6pm. Franklin County Children Services' public information director, Valancia Turner, replied the following morning at 10am. Kessler published his column on the morning of July 9.
Turner told Kessler: "Children Services agencies are prohibited from sharing information regarding specific cases, pursuant to Ohio [law]. Children Services agencies always wish to protect and respect the privacy of those we serve."
She never said her agency wasn’t aware of the case, nor did she fail to respond.
Sometimes, even the Fact Checker needs their facts checked.
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