Bridge Fact Checks Go Nowhere

The press tries. Palin still lies.

Is it naïve to think that if a candidate for national office is caught lying by the press, she might be forced, at a minimum, to stop repeating the lie? Or to explain herself? Or to apologize?

It shouldn’t be. But recent events seem to suggest otherwise.

When, less than two weeks ago, Sarah Palin took the stage in Dayton, Ohio to be introduced as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, she introduced a key talking point to justify her unexpected rise to prominence:

And I’ve championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress, I told Congress thanks, but no thanks, on that “Bridge to Nowhere.” If our state wanted a bridge, I said, we’d build it ourselves.

It didn’t take long before the press asked: “Really?” Moments after the words crossed her lips, The New Republic‘s Brad Plumer went on Nexis and found a questionnaire she’d completed for Anchorage Daily News during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign expressing clear support for the Gravina Island bridge project, a.k.a. “the bridge to nowhere.”

Palin’s bridge record, via her numerous public statements and reflected in the timeline of the bridge’s death, is pretty clear. After supporting the project during her campaign, she declined to proceed with construction as governor, but only after Congress had stripped the appropriations earmark for the project after national outcry. I’m not sure what the right term is for declining an offer that’s already been withdrawn, but “Thanks, but no thanks” hardly describes it.

It wasn’t long before other outlets followed up with their own fact checks. Plumer’s post was linked by The New York Times, which chimed in on Sunday with its own article. And yet the claim reappeared, nearly verbatim, at a preconvention rally, and then again in her convention speech. And then Palin took the line on the road, where’s she’s used it at least five more times. So, as of writing, that’s eight times. It’s in her stump speech, and it seems that no amount of journalistic fact checking can dislodge it.

Or could it? The New York Times has only pointed out the line’s tortured history twice. I asked Richard Stevenson, the Times’s political editor, if each repetition of the claim would warrant a fact-check in his paper.

“Of course not. There’s no way,” he adamantly responded. “I mean, at some point we can’t devote precious space in our newspaper, and our most precious resource, reporter time, to do stories over again.”

“A third story inside of seven days strikes me as somewhat excessive,” says Stevenson.
But would three stories be excessive if the lie persists? It depends, says Stevenson.

“If it becomes really egregious we will no doubt point it out more than once,” says Stevenson. “At some point it is up to the candidates to decide if they want to be fully honest and fully nuanced.”

Of course, the Times is not the only outlet whose work is being ignored. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal published a scathing fact-check, following pieces in USA Today (September 1) and Palin’s home state Anchorage Daily News (August 31). Fox News Sunday dissected it over the weekend. A McCain advertisement repeating the claim drew clear factual rebukes from the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

And all that fact checking, so far, is still not enough to take the claim off the record.

The morning after Palin’s convention speech, NPR ran a long story by veteran money and politics reporter Peter Overby, vetting various claims about her lobbying and earmarking record, including the Gravina bridge claim. On Monday and Tuesday, NPR’s Don Gonyea reported from the trail that Palin persisted in repeating her claim. Wednesday morning’s dispatch didn’t mention it, but on Thursday, Morning Edition ran a piece asking why the nowhere line still had legs.

“The main job of the press in the campaign is to hold candidates accountable to what they’ll say they’ll do and what they’ve done,” Overby told me. “Clearly there are cycles in political strategies and political coverage. If you look at the whole business of fact checking political claims and political ads—which I think started in ’84—the fact checking articles used to have a huge impact. But it would stand to reason that just like some kinds of ads aren’t as effective, that fact checks would be less effective.”

Why is that? Overby thought that one reason might be the diffuse, fragmented nature of today’s media—no single outlet, not even prestigious ones like the Times or NPR, wield enough power to force a course correction. He also suggested that the McCain campaign’s recent rhetorical attacks on the press didn’t betray much respect for their work.

Tactically, the McCain camp seems to have decided that there’s no benefit to admitting fault or to cutting the claim. Palin’s speech to the Republican National Convention, which again included the line, was watched by close to 40 million people. As The New Republic’s Michael Crowley pointed out, how many of those do you think have seen or read a fact check of the claim?

The campaign also might be hoping that aggressive fact checking will only aid its efforts to conflate salacious rumors and allegations of sexism with legitimate questions about the bridge and the many other unclear aspects of Palin’s political biography.

Yesterday, The Atlantic’s James Fallows struck on an interesting comparison. When Hillary Clinton, against much evidence, was caught embellishing her account of landing at Tuzla during the Bosnian war, she was roasted for days. But there’s no outrage this time around, and Fallows wonders why. Given that both Palin and Clinton are women, Fallows suggests that the only substantive difference between the two is party label.

I’d suggest three other explanations. One (which, to be fair, Fallows mentions) is the lack of eye-grabbing video in Palin’s case. Yes tape exists of Palin speaking favorably about the Gravina bridge, but it’s a boring clip given in bureaucratic language—little better than living text. There’s no little girl with poem and bouquet here, and, sad to say, that matters a lot to TV.

A second is that Palin has been under total radio silence since she was picked, not appearing at a single press conference and barely submitting to interviews. When CBS unearthed its old Tuzla footage, Clinton was making the rounds of editorial boards on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, and Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News was able to get a quote. (It was that admission that led the Times’s first story on the incident.)

And, third, the Tuzla gaffe affected two key narratives in the race. It undermined the idea that Clinton’s time as First Lady had left her well prepared to tend the country’s international affairs. And it supported another, long a staple of American politics: that the Clintons are untrustworthy, and all too willing to stretch the truth for political gain.

Which is exactly what journalists are trying to point out about Palin now.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.