True Lies

WaPo gets it right in its coverage of McCain's recent ad

On Monday, Megan Garber criticized the MSM for its failure to dissect a recent John McCain ad that hurled factually dubious allegations at Barack Obama. The ad claimed that Obama withdrew from a planned visit to an Army hospital in Germany once he learned that photographers would not be allowed inside. Problem is, as several blogs noted, there’s no evidence that the McCain camp’s claim is true.

It’s not as if the ad hasn’t drawn MSM attention—The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg reports that it has been replayed hundreds of times on various newscasts, and has been criticized on the air by people like Chuck Hagel and Claire McCaskill. But that criticism was offered as opinion, not as an independent assessment of the ad’s veracity.

We’ve long said that journalists should be encouraged to report on the factual validity of campaign claims and promises, rather than just transcribing those claims and promises without comment or analysis. In today’s Washington Post, Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz stepped up and passed some judgment, in as forthright a manner as we’ve seen this campaign season.

The first paragraph, emphasis ours:

For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.

Later, emphasis ours:

“I know that, according to reports, that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers,” McCain said Monday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

The Obama campaign has denied that was the reason he called off the visit. In fact, there is no evidence that he planned to take anyone to the American hospital other than a military adviser, whose status as a campaign staff member sparked last-minute concern among Pentagon officials that the visit would be an improper political event.

Still later, emphasis still ours:

“It is safe to say that, according to press reports, Barack Obama avoided, skipped, canceled the visit because of those reasons,” [McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds] said. “We’re not making a leap here.”

Asked repeatedly for the “reports,” Bounds provided three examples, none of which alleged that Obama had wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.

Shear and Balz’s bluntness is striking precisely because it’s so unexpected. Most reporters recoil from the idea of passing judgment on the news on which they are reporting. It seems antithetical to the notion of journalistic objectivity, and it leaves reporters open to accusations of partisan bias. Undoubtedly, after this, Shear and Balz will be slammed in certain circles as liberal hacks. But such are the hazards of honest reporting.

Journalists should strive for objectivity, yes—but objectivity to the truth, not to some rote notion of he-said/she-said “balance.” Good reporting provides citizens with the information necessary to form informed opinions on important subjects. The typical “Person Blue dislikes this ad, while Person Red thinks it is valid” framing—the framing employed by most outlets in their coverage of this story—does nothing to help people answer the fundamental question here: Do the ad’s charges have any merit? The facts indicate that McCain’s ad is inaccurate. Kudos to Shear and Balz for coming right out and saying so.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.