A Modest Proposal

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.)

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.

It’s crucial that these elaborations be connected as closely as possible to the hard news stories to which they relate. That would mean running them within the relevant news stories when possible, or alongside them as sidebars. If that can’t be done, they might be written as next-day efforts to nail things down (with the “analysis” slug, if editors prefer). And sometimes that might just mean running in a more timely manner — and on the news pages — the kind of contributions like those that Kinsley and Frankel produced days after the fact for the Post.

These analysts wouldn’t need to address every campaign issue that arises. But there are plenty of instances where a more rigorous treatment — going far beyond the paragraph or two that a reporter can feasibly include in his initial news piece — is essential if readers are to learn anything truly worthwhile. (To address ongoing issues, analysts could even compose short pieces of boilerplate language that campaign reporters could drop into their accounts when appropriate.)

How would this work in practice?

In the case of the Bush campaign’s “350 times” charge, analysts might have looked in detail at the 350 Kerry votes that the Bush campaign cites on its Web site to support its claim, and in equal detail at Kerry’s response. This stuff is out there, and with Nexis, Google, and the rest of the Web, reporters have never had more — or more convenient — search tools. As for the “Herbert Hoover” charge, how hard is it to report and write a piece that asked reputable economists with a range of political views about just how much of the job loss of the last three plus years can fairly be blamed on the current administration? (If there’s no good answer to that question, that in itself would be illuminating.)

Both the Times and the Post, of course, already publish analysis pieces, designated as such, in their news sections. Often they’re written by the type of respected veteran journalists — Todd Purdum of the Times, David Broder of the Post — practiced at taking the long view. But these pieces generally focus on the political ramifications of news events, or on political history. Rarely do they overtly scrutinize the campaigns’ rhetoric, and pass judgment on its validity.

We have been pelted this campaign season with “news” — such as the questions raised concerning President Bush’s National Guard service, or the charges that John Kerry threw back his war medals — that exists only as accusations, manufactured into story lines by the campaigns or their surrogates, and willingly swallowed up and then regurgitated by a compliant press.

That’s in part because the campaigns have caught up with, and in some ways, passed, the press. Sophisticated political operatives understand all too well the limitations that the conventions of modern-day “objectivity” impose on reporters. They know that, no matter how outlandish the charge, the press will cover it for the most part as a he-said/she-said. That means that for voters who don’t look closer — meaning most voters — the damage will be done. (If nothing else, the imperative to respond may keep the opposing candidate from talking about his preferred topic for the day.)

That’s why a press that went further could improve the level of political debate. Having the major papers provide a dedicated, experienced team of thorough but fast writers to sort through the campaigns’ competing claims and, when appropriate, offer judgment on them, would be a good start.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.