Somebody screwed up on the key campaign issue of tax cuts today. Compare these two passages about Gen. Wesley Clark’s attacks on his two main rivals yesterday in Tennessee.

First, Paul Schwartzmann and Vanessa Williams for The Washington Post:

(Clark) added, “I don’t understand how John Edwards and John Kerry can criticize the state of the economy when they voted for George Bush’s tax cuts that gave tax cuts mostly to wealthy Americans.”

Edwards voted against two of the three major tax cuts that have been passed into law since Bush took office. Kerry voted for one of the plans, rejected another and did not vote on the third.

Then there is John Glionna and Eric Slater for the Los Angeles Times. After quoting Clark criticizing Kerry and Edwards for voting for President Bush’s tax cuts, Glionna and Slater write:

Kerry opposed both of the Bush tax cuts. And the Edwards camp later released a statement to rebut Clark.

“The fact is, Senator Edwards voted against Bush’s tax cuts and has proposed rolling back his tax cuts for the wealthy, he has a plan to fix and fund No Child Left Behind, and has been a strong advocate for more international involvement in military action and reconstruction in Iraq,” the statement said.

The Post and the Times are contradicting each other, both about the number of tax cuts, and about Kerry’s and Edwards’s votes. So let’s sort this out.

First, as even the LA Times itself has written, there were indeed three major Bush tax cuts (2001, 2002, and 2003) as The Washington Post reports, not two, as the Times states in error.

More important, Kerry did not “oppose both of the Bush tax cuts” (of which there were in fact three). As the Post tells us, he voted for one, against another, and did not vote on a third.

As for Edwards, instead of simply running his campaign’s canned response, the Times might have helped readers get to the bottom of the issue, by pointing out that though Edwards did vote against two of the cuts (in 2001 and 2003), he voted for the 2002 cut. And the Post wins no prizes here either. Instead of saying simply that “Edwards voted against two of the three major tax cuts”, Schwartzmann and Williams might have added that he voted for another.

(In fact, both papers did better than the local Knoxville News Sentinel, which, other than running Edwards’s statement, didn’t even bother to point out that there was anything misleading about Clark’s original charge.)

It’s precisely when charges are flying in the heat of battle that reporters can be of the most value to readers, simply by laying out the facts.

In this case, all parties cited flunked that elementary test.

Thomas Lang and Zachary Roth

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.