98 Times (For the 98th Time …)

Just when Campaign Desk was momentarily heartened by a flurry of fact-checking — what a novel concept! — by the press lately, along comes Pete Yost of the Associated Press to remind us: Bad habits are hard to break.

Yost, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, emerges to repeat, unchallenged, an oldie but goodie from the arsenal of misleading campaign talking points.

Yost, reporting on President Bush’s appearance in Clive, Iowa yesterday, quotes the president saying: “In [Kerry’s] 20 years in the Senate, he’s voted to raise your taxes 98 times. Now all of a sudden he saying he’s for middle-class tax relief.” And Yost’s piece was picked up by news organizations in swing states around the country, airing Bush’s questionable claim — unquestioned — to a wide reading audience.

Factcheck.org, a web site that as far as we know is easily accessible to reporters on the road via Blackberry, debunked the “98 times” claim nearly a month ago. (In a nutshell, “of the 98 votes ‘for tax increases,’ 43 would not actually have increased taxes,” and “most of the 98 votes were on procedural measures,” and “more than once, the 98-vote total counts half a dozen or more on a single bill.”)

Moreover, as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman points out today, the “98 times” claim is actually a downward revision. “The Bush campaign Web site used to say [Kerry had voted to raise taxes 350 times], but in August, the campaign revised it, and decided that Kerry voted to raise taxes 98 times.” (While Polman implies that the “98 times” claim, too, is misleading, he doesn’t explicitly say so or how so.)

On the bright side, the Washington Post’s Jim VandeHei manages to get it right in his report today. VandeHei quotes Bush’s “98 times” line from yesterday, notes that in a new ad “the Bush campaign recycles similar charges about Kerry’s tax record,” and then explains how the charge is misleading.

It’s not too late, AP; the train is picking up speed but you can still catch up to it. (Come to think of it, aren’t you supposed to be leading it?)

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.