What Not to Do in Campaign Reporting

Star Tribune writes down Bachmann’s “strong opinions”

Campaign 2012 is underway, even with but one declared Republican contender. And so comes an example of What Not to Do in Campaign Reporting, courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (h/t, MinnPost’s David Brauer).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) visited Iowa (Iowa!) on Friday and delivered a speech “covered by a corps of roughly 50 Iowa, Minnesota and national media,” according to the Des Moines Register. In other words, speculative Election 2012 press coverage—Will s(he)? Won’t s(he)? And when will s(he) or won’t s(he)?— is picking up at a predictable pace.

“Bachmann testing the waters,” as the Star Tribune headline had it.

Mid-story, the Tribune reports, in passing, that “Democrats deride [Bachmann] as… factually challenged.” (I’m just passing along some other politicians’ claims about the veracity of this politician’s claims. Yes, I’m a reporter from Bachmann’s home state so I should be in a particularly good position to tell readers whether “factually challenged” is a fair description of the Congresswoman or just an unfounded Democratic dis. But, moving on….) A few sentences later it is confirmed: there will be no fact-challenging (of the “factually challenged”) here (emphasis mine):

On Friday, [Bachmann] largely avoided the specific political statements that have won her attention. Instead, she stayed in storyteller mode….

But she did throw out some strong opinions, saying that the federal government owns half of the country’s mortgages, that the Medicare trust fund will go “flat broke” in six years and that Barack Obama has accumulated more debt in one year than all past presidents combined.

But these aren’t so much “strong opinions” as they are factual (-sounding) assertions that a reporter should, in addition to writing down, verify or correct or flesh out for readers.

MinnPost’s Brauer takes care of the third claim (debt), laying out why it is false (the “one year” part, for one). But Brauer is not without appropriate empathy for the reporter:

I know it’s tougher to do a fact check on the campaign trail. However, Bachmann is enough of a serial violator and the presidency is a big enough deal that her “factual” claims can’t just be repeated unquestioningly; that gives them credibility they don’t deserve.

If the reporter in the field doesn’t have time, it’s up to the editors back at headquarters.

Ditto if the reporter just isn’t sure— which, I confess, I wasn’t, when it came to the truth of Bachmann’s other two statements (mortgages, Medicare), and so I ran them by The Audit’s Ryan Chittum, who filled in what Bachmann left out: The federal government owns almost half (44%) of the country’s mortgages, per the latest numbers from the Fed. And, about the Medicare trust fund going broke in six years? The same folks who made that projection in 2009 (that’s the Social Security and Medicare Trustees), in 2010, with passage of health care reform, put the insolvency date at 2029.

The bottom line? “Journalists: please catch Bachmann’s false claims on the trail,” as MinnPost’s Brauer titled his blog post. Let’s expand that to “false” and “half-true” and “mostly true but…” claims. By all politicians. Ideally, on and off the trail. Maybe be on particular alert when a politician “approaches Iowa with a trail of misstatements,” as Minnesota Public Radio’s Tom Scheck reported of Bachmann on Friday.

The key bit from Scheck’s report:

[PolitiFact editor Bill] Adair said no politician has been checked as often as Bachmann without saying at least something that’s true.

More from PolitiFact’s Adair:

“I don’t know anyone else that we have checked, more than a couple times, that has never earned anything above a false,” he said. “She is unusual in that regard that she has never gotten a rating higher than false.”

Adair is careful to say that he expects to someday fact check a Bachmann statement that turns out to be true.

Surely the Star Tribune is aware of this, at least generally?

In terms of “will she, won’t she” coverage, News Corp. won the day on Friday: Fox News’s Griff Jenkins “tagged along” with Bachmann in Des Moines in order to “show you a day in the life of a person trying to decide if she’s running for president;” and Fox Business Network’s Eric Bolling “spent the day with Michele in Des Moines.” Also, Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren had Bachmann live on Friday night. Witness Van Susteren’s (wandering, apologetic) sixth and seventh attempts to get Bachmann to confess her presidential longings On The Record:

VAN SUSTEREN: Congresswoman, I hope that you don’t think we [are] pushing, inquiring about why you’re in Iowa — I hope that — I mean, you know, I think people are curious because the races are exciting, you know, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in Iowa and candidates throwing their hats in the ring. We’re just — you know, we’re just so curious as to — you know, because there’s got to be some way to distinguish different people because, you know, many Republicans have the same ideology. And so you begin very early on trying to think, like, How is one different from another one? Why this one instead of another one, or — in either party. So that’s why it — sort of — you know, I kept coming back to you and saying, you know, Why are you there?


VAN SUSTEREN: And I understand you’re focused on the big picture, but we’re enormously curious.

BACHMANN: What was the last part, Greta?

VAN SUSTEREN: I said that we’re just enormously curious. I mean, you know, to what extent — let me — let me ask this…


VAN SUSTEREN: You know, to what — to what extent any candidate, you know — you know, wants to be president or anyone who’s sort of interested is — so let me try one more time. And I know I’m beating a little bit of a dead horse. But what — what — what are the — are the odds? I mean, I know — I suspect you’re taking a look at it. So just what are sort of the odds that you’re going to run for president?

BACHMANN: Well, I don’t feel any pressure that I have to make a decision…

…look at all the coverage I am getting in my indecision!

Tonight: another opportunity for political reporters to speculate about Rep. Bachmann’s presidential aspirations. Also? To fact check her. And President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan (whose PolitiFact records are, for starters, here and here).

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR. Tags: , , , ,