Ad-ing Up the Facts

The New York Times gets points for a story today by Jim Rutenberg, headlined “Campaign Ads are Under Fire for Inaccuracy.” But while the Times deserves credit for exposing some of the most glaring distortions being pushed by both sides, the piece also highlights a larger problem with press coverage of the campaigns: Its general failure to effectively check the candidates on a day-to-day basis.

Jim Rutenberg reports that, according to a new survey, mistaken impressions of the candidates are beginning to sink in. For instance, 61 percent of swing-state voters believe President Bush favors sending jobs abroad, and over half think John Kerry supports a 50-cent per gallon gas tax hike. Both of those claims — which, Rutenberg explains, are highly misleading if not flat-out false — come from recent negative campaign advertising.

He goes on to detail some more of the campaigns’ distortions, and includes the requisite quotes registering concern from representatives of “good government” groups. (As we’ve noted before, the news media feels it can’t compromise its “objectivity” by expressing condemnation in its own voice.)

But the press corps has too often been complicit in allowing the candidates to repeat their spin without criticism. Rutenberg reports that the Bush campaign has run ads that say Kerry will raise taxes by $900 billion in his first 100 days in office, even though Kerry has no such plan. But Paul Waldman, writing in The Gadflyer, pointed out back in March that when that ad originally came out, most news accounts either mentioned the $900 billion claim without any refutation at all (see, for instance, this USA Today story) or simply allowed the Kerry campaign to respond, offering readers no help in determining the accuracy of the charge.

To be fair to Rutenberg, he himself wrote a piece at the time that looked skeptically at the claim, and concluded that it was “misleading.” But that useful work was undercut when, over the next two days, the Times ran two other stories which turned the issue into he-said, she-said, without independently assessing the fairness of the accusation.

The only way to stop the campaigns from continuing to grossly distort the truth is for the entire press corps — not just the Times and the Washington Post, but USA Today, the Associated Press, and the TV networks, which are the source of news for many more voters — to point out these distortions, immediately and unequivocatingly, using their own reportorial (as opposed to editorial) voice.

That means not leaving scrutiny of campaign ads to designated hitters like Rutenberg and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. It means not relying on the other campaign — or even on independent experts like Brooks Jackson — to rebut the charges.

Moroever, it means making the fact that the campaigns are deliberately misleading voters the central feature of the coverage from the first day of the ad’s release. Rather than slipping assertions that an ad is misleading into the midst of a larger story about the ad release — only serving to give wider exposure to the claims — the press should report the story as “New X Campaign Ad Seeks to Mislead Voters.” After all, isn’t that the bigger news?

You can’t blame the campaigns for seeking every advantage in a tight race. They’ll continue to do so until the price, in terms of their perceived honesty and credibility, becomes too high. And that will only happen when the press starts treating the campaigns misleading charges with the level of attention, and indignation, they deserve.

Zachary Roth

Update, 5/26, 1:15 p.m.: Though the USA Today story cited above did not adequately scrutinize a clearly deceptive claim made in a Bush campaign ad, it should be noted that the paper also ran a sidebar analyzing the ad that did question the claim. But the paper did not make that analysis the focus of its coverage of the ad.

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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.