Campaign Contretemps Covered Correctly

WaPo reporter digs into McCain campaign claims

If reporters are looking for a model for how to cover the daily barrage of charges and counter-charges launched by the candidates and their surrogates, they might consider taking a look at these two stories by the Washington Post’s Alec MacGillis.

Today, MacGillis writes about Rudolph Giuliani’s attack on Barack Obama, on behalf of the McCain campaign, for praising the legal response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Giuliani argued that Democrats like Obama rely unduly on a “law enforcement mindset.” As the story notes, Obama’s campaign responded by noting that, at the time, Giuliani had similarly praised the legal approach, declaring that the guilty verdict “demonstrates that New Yorkers won’t meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon—the law.”

But the piece doesn’t settle for simply reporting the attack and the response. MacGillis points out that Giuliani’s belief in the value of law enforcement in fighting terrorism went far beyond one single quote:

Yet throughout his career as a Department of Justice official and federal prosecutor — as well as for most of his tenure as New York mayor, which began shortly after the 1993 bombing, and ended just after the far more destructive 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center — Giuliani himself viewed terrorism as just one part of a broader crime-fighting agenda. Again and again, he expressed confidence that Islamic extremism could be contained through investigation by local and federal law enforcement, and prosecuted in the courts.

MacGillis also notes the contradiction between McCain’s decision to use Giuliani as a surrogate on issues of fighting terrorism, and his previous assessment of Giuliani’s expertise on that subject. During the GOP nominating race last fall, McCain told The New York Times: “I know of nothing in his background that indicates that he has any experience in [foreign policy or national security].”

MacGillis has shown himself willing to scrutinize the campaigns’ arguments—a piece published yesterday observes that Richard Clarke, appearing as an Obama surrogate, seemed to contradict a key Democratic argument on Iraq:

Democrats have tried to argue in recent years that many of those battling and killing Americans in Iraq are homegrown insurgents, not Al-Qaeda warriors. But Clarke said that Al-Qaeda had not attacked on American soil since Sept. 11 because it had instead decided that it was easier to attack America in Iraq: “They’ve killed 4,000 and wounded 25,000,” he said, contradicting the Democratic case that many if not most casualties have been inflicted by non-Al-Qaeda Iraqis.

The specifics of exactly who’s right in these cases are less important than the general journalistic approach that these stories take, in which the reporter’s job is seen not merely as transcribing the attack du jour, then dutifully including a response from the other side; but, rather, assessing the accuracy, credibility, and persuasiveness of the competing arguments, particularly in light of past statements and broader debates.

If only all campaign contretemps were covered the same way.

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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.