Doctors who treated a 10-year-old rape survivor somehow became the villains in a right-wing morality play this week. That process was helped along by an incomplete “fact-check” casting doubt on the truth of the child’s story written by Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler, who even after the truth of the story was confirmed privately defended his own reporting on it by mentioning that he has relatives who are rape survivors.
Earlier this month, Dr. Caitlin Bernard told the Indianapolis Star that she treated the 10-year-old child, who was forced to flee from Ohio to Indiana for medical care because her pregnancy was too advanced for an abortion to be legal in her home state. (While the Star did not report that Bernard performed an abortion, that was the clear implication.)
As nightmarish as the original situation—a product of anti-abortion laws working as they were designed and intended to work—was, it’s only been compounded by the macabre spectacle surrounding it. Thursday, for example, news broke that Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita sent a letter to Governor Eric Holcomb seeking information as part of an investigation into Bernard. Before authorities and right-wing media figures sought to indict Bernard, though, they sought to indict her credibility, painting her on-the-record comments about the case to the Star as unverified, untrustworthy, and possibly fabricated. A cavalcade of blog posts and viral Twitter threads depicted the story of the 10-year-old as likely untrue—the timing of the narrative was “too on the nose,” as one conservative blogger put it—and designed to stoke the passions of the already abortion-crazed left.
A key fellow traveler in this effort was Kessler, who writes the Post’s fact-checking column and has been criticized for doing things like calling a clearly accurate statement made by Bernie Sanders “misleading” for seemingly vibes-based reasons. While ostensibly neutral and apolitical, Kessler’s column is in practice deeply political, consistently locating the truth at a point exactly equidistant between what Republican and Democratic politicians and activists say. His exercise in fact-checking the Star’s original report mentioning the 10-year-old was carried out in this spirit, and lent an official-seeming imprimatur to baseless complaints that there was something untrustworthy about the paper’s reporting.
Originally, the Star—a highly credible paper that shared a 2021 Pulitzer for national reporting—was covering the phenomenon of people crossing state lines to obtain abortions. In the lede of the story, reporters Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette quoted Bernard describing the case of the 10-year-old; the story subsequently went viral as an illustration of the cruelty and inhumanity of anti-abortion laws. After Joe Biden cited it in a speech, a variety of people ranging from random internet users to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board to Ohio’s attorney general started qualming about and attempting to discredit the story, which was not particularly suspicious in any way: 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. (It in fact meets a higher one than most crime reporting, which is typically sourced to police with no first-hand knowledge of events.)
This is where Kessler came in: With motivated actors baselessly claiming there was something off about the story, the ostensibly neutral and apolitical arbiter of truth for the prestigious Post weighed in to agree, writing a column putting the word “fact” in scare quotes and landing on the note that the story lacked “solid grounding,” based in part on Bernard and Star journalists declining to give him information he had no reason to expect from them. It was an unimpressive performance at the time, and events quickly made it look ridiculous. Not only did the Columbus Dispatch identify a man who had been charged with raping the 10-year-old, but in an update to the story, Kessler admitted that Columbus-area authorities whom he’d implied in his column had told him they were unaware of any such case had in fact not responded to a request for comment—a very different thing.
Kessler came in for a lot of criticism on Twitter, much of it quite rude, as would be expected, and responded by vaguely defending his original column and haughtily explaining that he doesn’t read notifications on the “toxic platform” on which he frequently writes, but does respond to “thoughtful and provocative emails.” One reader, Allison H.—Motherboard isn’t using her unusual last name so this story doesn’t come up in search engine results—sent him an email about the following passage from his column:
An abortion by a 10-year-old is pretty rare. The Columbus Dispatch reported that in 2020, 52 people under the age of 15 received an abortion in Ohio.
Allison H., who later tweeted about the exchange, shared the email thread with Motherboard. In it, she asked Kessler why he used the word “by” instead of “for,” whether he knew that children having abortions is more common in Ohio than in neighboring states, and whether he’d considered that any pregnancy in someone under 16 is the result of rape in Ohio because the age of consent is 16. Kessler replied that the word “by” was a typo, that he hadn’t been aware of the relevant information about the prevalence of Ohio children having abortions, and that he had used the word “rape” 10 times in his story. In a follow-up, Allison H. pointed out that according to his own column, children under the age of consent in Ohio had abortions around once a week, making it less than “rare,” and wondering why he’d used that word. In response, Kessler wrote:
I used “rare” in the sense that it was small percentage of overall abortions, based on the Columbus Dispatch article. But it appears to have been misunderstood and in retrospect it was the wrong word. Rape is not rare – [two family members of mine] were raped and I know other women who have been raped. So I regret using that word.
(Motherboard is not sharing the identities of the family members to protect their privacy.)
“I would hope you have permission from your [family members] to share these details,” wrote Allison H. in reply. “I wouldn't be thrilled if my family shared that I'd been raped with strangers.”
“They are both open about it. Otherwise I would not mention it,” wrote Kessler, going into detail about what a family member posts on Facebook on the anniversary of her assault before saying that in retrospect he should have stricken the sentence describing children under the age of consent having abortions in Ohio, which was fairly common before the repeal of Roe v. Wade, as “rare.”
(Motherboard asked Kessler why he had chosen this story to fact check, why he’d implied that Columbus-area officials had told him they couldn’t identify the case when they in fact hadn’t responded to him, and what the relevance of his family members’ experience with rape was to the points Allison H. raised. A Post spokesperson replied that “The intent of the piece was to spotlight the need for careful reporting in a time when information spreads rapidly.”)
In randomly sharing the sensitive details of his family members’ sexual assaults with a stranger, Kessler seemed to be responding to a criticism that no one has actually made: that he doesn’t understand rape, or that he has no second-hand experience with it. This is curious logic, but it’s worth noting, on this point, that the Post has been accused of penalizing reporters for having first-hand experiences of sexual assault. Ex-Post reporter Felicia Sonmez sued the paper last year, claiming that the top brass at the paper barred her from covering sexual assault stories after she came forward with her own allegations of sexual misconduct. (Sonmez lost her suit, and was later fired by the Post after publicly feuding with colleagues on Twitter over a sexist joke retweeted by her colleague Dave Weigel.)
Kessler apparently had no fears that his own second-hand relationship with the issue of sexual assault would lead his bosses or the public to worry about his impartiality. Nor did he appear to understand why a garbled and half-completed “fact check” was received so poorly by the public.
What is to be made of all this is for the reader to determine, but one should be at least as wary of the facts in fact-checking columns as one is of anything else in prestigious newspapers, and consider that for some journalists—many of them working in our nation’s finest outlets—some facts are too ugly to be taken seriously, even when they’re true.