Even before The Associated Press declared that John McCain was wrong when he called the Democratic candidates’ health plans socialized medicine, The New York Times had told its readers the same thing—that McCain is incorrect in suggesting that his rivals are proposing a single-payer or even a nationalized health care system. The Times reported that McCain has repeatedly made such assertions in recent days, as in Des Moines, for example, when he said: “There are those that want a massive government takeover of the health care system in America. And Senator Obama has basically the same kind of government massive intervention and takeover of health care in America.” Pretty strong stuff. The problem: it’s not true.

The Times story went further, pointing out that both McCain and the Republicans have called for accuracy on the campaign trail. “They have been complaining indignantly,” the paper noted, “that the Democrats were grossly distorting his position by suggesting that he favors a ‘100-year war in Iraq,’ when he has simply said that he would be fine with stationing troops there for 100 years as long as there were no more American casualties.” (And it’s worth noting further that, unlike the charge that Democrats are proposing socialized medicine, which is flat-out wrong, the innacuracy in the “100 years” quote is somewhat subtle, since it’s hard to see a time— at least from the perspective of 2008—when there would not be U.S. casualties in Iraq as long as U.S. soldiers are there.)

It’s good to see that some in the media are trying to help their readers separate the wheat from the chaff of campaign rhetoric. Let’s hope they keep talking about what the Democrats will and won’t do in their plan, and what McCain will and won’t do. The health care plans promoted by the two parties in this election veer in very different directions. The Democrats would build on the current system, add a public option to compete with private insurers, and try to get more people to buy insurance by throwing tax credits and subsidies at them to make insurance more affordable. McCain wants to rip up the employer-based system and get everyone to buy insurance on their own, also with the help of tax subsidies. This is a vast difference. (It’s worth noting, though, that in both approaches, there’s a little bit of marketplace magic, which candidates hope will bring health care costs down and make insurance cheaper.)

As The Times points out, language is “a potent weapon in the battle to shape policy.” We would add that honest language is, of course, what the public needs in order to understand the health care debate, and that working to keep that debate honest is the job of the press.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.