Hillary’s Technical Truth

A small example of a much larger press problem

The Washington Post reports today that Hillary Clinton, still doggedly making her case, told West Virginia voters today:

It’s a fact that Democrats don’t get elected unless West Virginia votes for you.

Leaving aside the awkward syntax, this is almost true in a technical sense—you have to go back to 1916 to find a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who won the White House without carrying West Virginia.

But looking at today’s political map, there’s no reason at all to think that this holds true in the sense that Clinton intended it—as a prescription for the future. Both Al Gore and John Kerry lost the state, but had they fared better in other states (states where they came a lot closer than in West Virginia), they could easily have been elected anyway. And the Democrats’ likeliest path to victory in November doesn’t include the Mountain State.

In other words, Clinton’s declaration makes no more sense than if she had said that Democrats don’t get elected after 1976 unless their name is Clinton. So the question is: When a candidate makes a deeply misleading argument to voters, should reporters point it out, rather than just passing along the argument without comment? I’d argue that they should.

Not to single out the Post here. As an example of transcribing a candidate’s political spin without challenging it, today’s report constitutes a pretty minor offense.

But precisely because this case is just the tip of the iceberg, the larger point is worth keeping in mind: making clear which arguments stand up to basic scrutiny and which don’t isn’t media bias, it’s good journalism.

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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.