As a Campaign Desk reader pointed out, something strange is afoot in today’s Associated Press story by Pauline Jelinek.

The headline reads: “Candidates Play on Fears of Attacks, War.” In her first sentence, Jelinek lays out how one of the candidates is “playing on the fear factor” by writing, “Vice President Dick Cheney suggested in a campaign speech there might be another terrorist attack on the United States if John Kerry were in the White House.”

Now Cheney made this “suggestion” (his exact words: if Americans make the “wrong choice” on election day, “the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we’ll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we’re not really at war”) in a speech on September 8 so why, Campaign Desk wondered, would this constitute a lead in an AP story 12 days later?

Perhaps because, according to Jelinek’s second sentence, “President Bush’s opponents’ [sic] are raising their own fears, including the potential for more wars during a second Bush term.” So you see it’s a pattern now, both sides are doing it, which surely warrants its own story.

And yet Jelinek never offers readers any evidence that “President Bush’s opponents are raising their own fears.” Instead, Jelinek summarizes some recent fear mongering from the Republican House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, as well as a response from John Edwards. She then devotes the rest of her piece to talking heads from various think tanks.

(An odd aside: Jelinek gives each tank an identifier — “the libertarian Cato Institute,” “the conservative Heritage Foundation, “the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute” — except for the Lexington Institute, the first organization she cites. Other news organizations have had no trouble assigning a “conservative” label to Lexington).

Bottom line: Contrary to AP’s headline and Jelinek’s declaration, the only “candidate” quoted “playing on” fears in Jelinek’s piece is Cheney.

Just one more contender in Campaign Desk’s never-ending Unsupported Lead contest.

We’ll try to narrow down a winner — and pass out some Oscars — by Nov. 3.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.