Experienced media critics know — or should know — that you don’t try to knock down a story based on an on-the-record source unless you’ve got the goods. But that didn’t stop Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler from wading in over an article published on July 1 in the Indianapolis Star by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette. They reported that patients were traveling to Indiana, where abortion is still legal, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Kessler’s interest was sparked by the lead anecdote. Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an OB/GYN in Indianapolis, said she’d been contacted by a doctor in Ohio and asked if she could help arrange an abortion for a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim. Noting that Indiana might soon outlaw abortion as well, Bernard was quoted in the article as saying: “It’s hard to imagine that in just a few short weeks we will have no ability to provide that care.”
By the time Kessler decided to weigh in, the story had gone viral, cited by President Biden and criticized in anti-abortion circles for its lack of verifying details. Kessler wrote:
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. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained. A Gannett spokeswoman provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s executive editor: “The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”
Kessler also reported that Bernard declined to provide any additional details when he contacted her by email, and that he could find no evidence that a criminal investigation might be under way. Here is Kessler’s conclusion:
This is a very difficult story to check. Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.
With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a “fact” no matter its provenance. If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.
I tweeted at Kessler last Saturday: “Glenn, you say you asked Dr. Bernard for the name of her colleague and the city where they’re located, and she declined to answer. But did you press her on her conversation with her colleague and what convinced her that the anecdote is real?”
Kessler did not respond. I later found out that Kessler doesn’t reply to tweets but will respond to DMs or emails. It’s in his Twitter bio, but I hadn’t looked. Why would I? I know who he is.
I’m trying to be as clinical as I can here and give Kessler his due for leaving himself open to the possibility that the story might be proven true. But keep in mind that the Star had Bernard on the record telling them that she had been contacted directly by another doctor who wanted to know if she could help with the 10-year-old rape victim. Bernard was not passing along a rumor she’d heard. She had direct knowledge. The story was a little thin since the Star didn’t (and probably couldn’t) verify this horrifying anecdote. But we see thinner stories than this on a regular basis, including in The Washington Post.
Well, you probably know what happened next. On Wednesday, The Columbus Dispatch reported that “a Columbus man has been charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl,” thus vindicating both Dr. Bernard and the Star, a sister newspaper. Kessler tweeted: “The last line of this fact check was: ‘If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.’ Now, a rapist has been charged and the story has been updated. Getting lots of angry emails but journalism is an accumulation of facts.”
Yes, journalism is an accumulation of facts. The problem here is that Kessler lacked sufficient facts to go with his original story, to which an update has been appended. A fair reading of his original piece was that he thought there was a good chance that Bernard’s story wasn’t true, and that the Star reporters were being credulous for passing it along. He wasn’t able to prove it, so he should have just let it go, regardless of what lingering suspicions he might have had.
I’ll repeat — yes, it was a little thin, but we see worse every day. Also: We have no way of knowing whether Bernard might have provided the Star with some confirming details on an off-the-record basis. The Bottom Line, to borrow Kessler’s rubric: He shouldn’t have gone there without convincing evidence that the story wasn’t true.
Now, I’ve gone on at some length about Kessler’s misjudgment while saying nothing about the outrageous rhetoric that played out on the right. That’s because Kessler is a respected journalist working for a careful, highly regarded news organization. It’s fair to hold Kessler and the Post to a higher standard than propaganda outlets — but we also need to acknowledge their toxic, corrosive effect.
Among the worst was the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial headlined “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” The subhead is a howler: “Biden told a tale of a 10-year-old rape victim that no one can identify,” blowing past the reality that the media don’t identify rape victims, let alone those who are 10.
“The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall,” the Journal wrote. “One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.” The shameful editorial, which actually cited the far-right website PJ Media as an authority, has since acquired an editor’s note, and the paper has published a separate, defensive never-mind editorial.
Finally, Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab has written an exceptionally good overview of the whole sorry episode. The headline: “Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?” The early evidence is not encouraging.