Janofsky and Rutenberg’s approach - which follows the prevailing standard for journalistic “balance” by allowing the Kerry campaign to respond in its own words — seems reasonable on its face. But it leaves bewildered readers wondering which is more valid — the original charge , or Kerry’s response. That does readers a disservice — in this case one side’s rhetoric is far more accurate than the other’s.
The Washington Post’s record on the “350 times” charge is better, but only slightly. Three times the Post reported the Bush campaign’s accusation, but only Mike Allen, in his March 21 coverage of a speech by the president in Florida, saw fit to include the pithy caveat: “That figure includes times that Kerry voted against tax cuts.” Perhaps to finally cover the issue, four days later the Post ran a column by Michael Kinsley, titled “Kerry’s ‘350 Tax Increases,’” devoted to pointing out the flawed and deceptive nature of the charge.
It’s interesting that the Post felt that only a columnist, not a reporter writing for the news pages, should be afforded the leeway to go beyond “he-said, she-said” and get to the bottom of conflicting accounts.
The “350 times” broadside is far from the only campaign attack that the Times and the Post have treated with insufficient scrutiny. Three times this campaign season, the Times has reported the Democratic claim that the U.S. has lost more jobs under President Bush than under any president since Herbert Hoover. But not once in those three stories has the Times included the crucial qualifier that many of those job losses occurred as a result of the 2001 recession, which began as Bush was taking office, and for which few economists believe he deserves the blame.
For its part, The Washington Post has mentioned the Hoover charge in five separate news stories, without ever providing the context. Once again, it was left to an opinion writer, in its April 11 “Outlook” section, to get to the bottom of things. Economist Jeffrey Frankel took a hard look at the role of the president in creating jobs, and pointed out that, “The recession began two months after he took office, before he had had a chance to do much damage. As convenient as it would be for the Democrats to be able to claim that Bush fiscal policies caused the weak economy of the last three years, good economic logic does not support that contention.”
But Kinsley’s and Frankel’s pieces — though excellent commentaries in their own right — don’t in themselves serve to correct the problem. Aside from being designated as opinion, they don’t specifically refer to the Post’s own news reporting on the subject at hand. That significantly diminishes their ability to set the record straight for readers of the news pages.
We could offer other examples. The fact is, countless times this campaign season, the major papers have covered the campaigns’ various claims and counter-claims without providing the simple fact-checking and assessment that readers need if they’re to take anything away from the exchanges.
It’s unreasonable to expect daily political reporters, with tight deadlines and limited space, to provide this sort of microscope for the issues they’re reporting on. Their focus, after all, is rendering the immediate news of the day in as clear and concise a manner as possible. That format that just doesn’t lend itself to a laborious truth-check. And there are good and obvious reasons why reporters are wary of appearing to take one side or the other when writing hard news stories.
As Columbia Journalism Review has documented with depressing regularity for some years now, most newsroom managers are under relentless pressure from their corporate overseers to cut costs and “do more with less.” We’re well aware that even the biggest and the best aren’t immune from those demands, but unlike their smaller brethren, they already have the resources at hand to create the kind of daily journalism that we’re envisioning here. These papers could dramatically enhance their coverage by assigning a team of “analysts” to provide the quick but thorough background research that the daily reporters don’t have time or space to include in their pieces — and, most useful of all, to adjudicate between the campaigns’ various charges and counter-charges.
These analysts would be based in the newsroom rather than on the campaign trail, giving them the resources to conduct in-depth research. Being less dependent than everyday political reporters on the campaigns’ press operations for their information, they might be expected to be quicker at exposing the distortions and inaccuracies in campaign rhetoric, in effect creating a rounder, fuller news report that their newspapers now do.