NPR gives WaPo's Kessler 8 minutes to defend widely criticized piece on Tim Scott's ancestors

Kessler explained that Scott’s origin story, like those of many politicians, sounded a little too “tidy,” and so he decided it would make an “interesting” fact check.

Kessler noted in his piece that Scott’s humble beginnings were more “complex” than the senator let on, particularly because Scott’s great-great-grandfather owned 900 acres in South Carolina, and Scott’s grandfather, Artis Ware, worked on that farm. Social media united in ripping Kessler for the controversial piece, calling it “cringe,” “embarrassing” and “racist.” Kessler said “it was not a very good day for me to see that spread with such vehement across the internet.”

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According to Kessler, his critics “twisted” his argument to make it sound more sinister. He noted defensively that he relied on property records to write his piece and he sticks by his conclusion that the narrative Sen. Scott has been telling America is misleading.

“The article acknowledges that Senator Scott may not have known his full family history and that the census records regarding the lives of Black Americans can be inconsistent,” Kessler told NPR. “But some critics have twisted that appropriate caution to suggest that all of the documentation in the article is suspect. I also obtained property and other records that expanded on information in the census, and those records are not in dispute. And those property records show how much land his great-grandfather purchased. And he appears to have been one of the biggest landowners, white or Black, in Aiken County at the time.”

NPR host Michel Martin appeared to give Kessler the benefit of the doubt when she asked him why his take would be considered a bad thing, as it shows how “successful” Scott’s ancestors were.

“So – but why would a story about your ancestors being successful, especially at a time when the odds were so stacked against them, be viewed as a negative thing? I mean, you point that out in your piece. You point out that this was a remarkable achievement,” Martin wondered.

Kessler agreed and said it only supports his argument that Sen. Scott is stretching the truth when he says he rose from “virtually nothing to the heights of the Senate.” The writer mused that the “inconsistencies” in Scott’s story probably make him “uncomfortable.” He added only briefly that Scott’s ancestors couldn’t have been all that privileged because they were living in the era of the Jim Crow South.

Sen. Scott singled out Kessler and the Washington Post in his Republican rebuttal to President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last Wednesday.

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“Just last week, a national newspaper suggested that my family’s poverty was actually privilege because a relative owned land generations before my time,” Scott said, adding that in the aftermath of the controversy he had again been maligned as an “Uncle Tim” by progressives and liberals. 

Sen. Scott reasoned that while he’s experienced racism in his lifetime, he believes that America is not a racist nation, which was a radical statement to many media pundits.

Kessler said he was surprised by Scott’s reaction because he “gave Scott and his staff every opportunity to respond” to his research.

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