Deception in Des Moines

The Register’s Media Watch might want to check the mirror

On Saturday The Des Moines Register weighed in with one of its Media Watch features, which critiques political ads and other political claims. Unfortunately, this one raised some questions about the Register’s own ability to shoot straight.

The subject was a new John Edwards ad, and it was set up in the truth squad manner, as a detector of deceptions and misleading statements, with lines like Who Said it, Where It Was Said, What Was Said, and What Viewers Should Know. But in fact, this particular item was a sort of an odd, disguised editorial.

The Edwards ad, titled “Voice,” just started running in Iowa. Here’s what the Register told readers about “What Was Said”:


“I met a man named James Lowe who was born with a cleft palate.

He had no voice for fifty years, because with no health care, he couldn’t get a simple operation.

Fifty years with no voice—in America.

It’s wrong. It is immoral.

When are we going to stop letting drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists run this country?

James Lowe finally got his voice; now, it’s time for yours.

I’m John Edwards, and I approve this message.”

Then, under “What Viewers Should Know,” the paper said nothing at all about the ad. Zip. Zero. Instead What Viewers Should Know is, apparently, this:

• That Edwards was stressing the difference between the haves and the have-nots in his campaign and added that he has “stiff competition trying to pave the way to the White House by stressing health care, a top issue of concern for Iowa Democrats.”

• That poll information indicates voters thought Hillary Clinton would do a better job of solving the health care dilemma than her rivals. The Media Watch noted that “a recent poll showed that respondents believed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton would do the best job on the issue over both Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.” As further proof, it said that “a CBS poll this month found that 61 percent of those who plan to vote in a Democratic primary express confidence in Clinton’s ability to make the right decisions about health care. Forty-two percent of respondents said they had confidence in Obama, while 39 percent said they had confidence in Edwards. Forty-nine percent said Clinton would do a better job on health care than her Democratic opponents.”

Nothing about the ad, and plenty about polls. And not even fresh polls. The Register’s words about polling are almost verbatim from a story found on three months ago. (A new CBS New York Times poll released earlier this month did not address the question of who voters preferred to handle health care.) A three-month old poll can be misleading in such a tight and hotly contested race that the Iowa caucuses have become, especially when it attributes old numbers to a recent poll.

Let the editorial page handle endorsements. (And as it happens, on the same day as the Edwards Media Watch ran, the Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, giving a knock to Edwards along the way.) Media Watch columns should watch media. And maybe glance in the mirror from time to time.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.