By Zachary Roth
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are deep into mud-slinging already this campaign season, with no sign of a let-up.
Any time that politics devolves into a daily drumbeat of “Did not!”, “Did so!”, there’s an understandable tendency for disgusted voters to turn to matters of more import — like getting on with their own lives. (And, in fact, that tune-out seems already under way. As Campaign Desk noted earlier this week, a mere 1.2 million of 3.1 million eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in the closely-followed Republican primary for a US Senate seat in swing-state Pennsylvania.)
Clearly, there’s an opportunity for a vigilant press to come to the rescue. One antidote to help clear the air and possibly keep potential voters engaged is quite simple: Journalism that goes beyond just dumping the claims and counter-claims of two competing politicians into readers’ laps and then walking away. But 16 weeks into this experiment that we call Campaign Desk, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the newspapers that the rest of the profession look up to — the handful of papers thought to be the class of their field — too often don’t practice that kind of journalism. Day after day, in fact, few of them go much beyond the he-said/she-said school of journalism that leaves readers neither satisfied nor informed.
Partly, this failure comes about because in intensely partisan times, editors and reporters are wary of making judgments that could be construed as compromising their “objectivity” — even when common sense cries out for such judgments. And partly it’s a product of the more frenzied pace of the news cycle, spurred on by cable TV outlets and blogs of all stripes — a pace that leaves little time or room for reflection, or for getting to the bottom of conflicting claims.
There are also larger reasons why the press has dropped this particular ball, but that remains the subject for a more ambitious examination than this one. What we have in mind here is less a tracing of first causes and more a pragmatic here-and-now fix that would serve editors at major newspapers as well as their readers:
Create a small team of fast, thorough reporters whose primary task is to supplement your paper’s helter-skelter daily political coverage by providing the crucial detective work and synthesis that’s been lacking.
We’re wary of telling experienced editors how to manage their newsrooms. But in order to get a sense of the problem, let’s take a look at the way it plays out in real time. Since John Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee, the Bush campaign has worked hard to paint him as a tax-and-spend liberal. One of its favorite claims is that Kerry has voted 350 times for higher taxes.
As has been pointed out by Factcheck.org, a non-partisan political accuracy monitor, and others, the “350 times” claim is highly misleading. It counts procedural votes, votes against lowering taxes, and votes in favor of various alternatives to larger tax cut proposals — all votes that would not have directly raised taxes.
Those are facts that readers deserve to be told on each occasion that the “350 times” charge is reported. But of the three times that The New York Times has covered the accusation — to cite one example — not once has it provided that crucial information.
Michael Janofsky and Jim Rutenberg of the Times dealt with the “350 times” charge in an almost identical manner: Janofsky, covering a March 29 speech by Vice President Dick Cheney to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Rutenberg, looking at a new Bush attack ad on April 2, both reported the Bush campaign’s assertion, then followed with a response from the Kerry campaign that the charge unfairly “cherry-picked” votes from Kerry’s record. Neither tried to get to the bottom of exactly who is right.
(The only other coverage by the Times of the “350 times” issue took a slightly different approach, but was guilty of the same omission. On March 21, Richard Stevenson, covering a speech by President Bush in Florida, reported that Bush made the “350 times” accusation, along with a rash of similar criticisms of Kerry’s record on taxes. Though Stevenson did provide useful context to help readers evaluate some of the other charges, the response that he included from Kerry did not address the “350 times” charge at all, and Stevenson let the figure stand unchallenged.)