Facing Facts - At Last!

The most encouraging part of the press coverage of last night’s presidential debate has been the sudden flurry of fact-checking segments. Most of the TV networks followed their coverage of the event with reasonably serious attempts to tell viewers where the candidates’ rhetoric had departed from reality. And in this morning’s print coverage, the New York Times and Washington Post did likewise.

On TV, ABC challenged Kerry’s assessment that the Iraq war has cost $200 billion. It pointed out that the Office of Management and Budget and military analysts put the cost at no more than $130 billion. (ABC failed to explain that Kerry’s $200 billion figure counts money scheduled to be spent next year, plus additional funds for the future that haven’t yet been requested.) And it questioned Bush’s statement that we’ve trained 100,000 Iraqi troops, reporting that the Defense Department has put the figure at 50,000. And, as ABC put it, “and there are serious questions about how trained they are, and how prepared they are to provide security.” NBC focused on the same two issues as ABC, doing a better job of explaining where Kerry’s $200 billion figure came from.

For its part, CNN took on four completely different issues. First, it tackled Bush’s statement that he fought a pre-emptive war in Iraq because “the enemy attacked us.” CNN noted that Kerry “fact-checked” this himself, pointing out that Saddam and Iraq had no involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. CNN reinforced the point, informing viewers that the 9/11 Commission also had found no evidence of a link between Saddam and 9/11. Then, CNN questioned Kerry’s statement that bin Laden is in Afghanistan, telling viewers that the CIA believes him to be in Pakistan, which won’t allow U.S. troops in. And it also questioned Kerry’s statement that WMD cross the border into Iraq every day. As CNN’s David Ensor put it, “I’m not sure what he means by that.” Finally, it highlighted Kerry’s statement that North Korea developed nuclear weapons during the Iraq war. In fact, as CNN told viewers, the CIA believes that North Korea has had at least one or two nuclear weapons for several years now, since well before the Iraq war.

MSNBC used the same reporter, Brian Williams, as its cousin NBC. But the cable network seemed to want the most praise for its fact-checking, introducing the segment with the following from Williams:

We watched the proceedings tonight here in Coral Gables, in a relatively quiet room with some of the best and brightest at NBC News. We called them the truth squad. They are the producers, very young, many of them, who are in charge of just following these issues, and with their brains and the best resources, here is some of what we came up with.

In the end, of course, MSNBC offered viewers the same two issues — Kerry’s erroneous $200 billion figure, and Bush’s faulty 100,000 troops trained boast — that NBC (and ABC) had spotted. But it also included a third issue, confirming that Bush had been right to point out that sanctions on Iran were in place before he was in office, despite Kerry’s charge to the contrary.

The Washington Post was among the most aggressive of the print outlets in fact-checking the candidates. And it, along with the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, came up with a fact-check scoop overlooked by TV: Although Bush said that 10 million people had registered to vote in Afghanistan, the Human Rights Watch, in a lengthy report, says that the figure is inaccurate because of multiple registrations of many voters. (Or as Krugman put it, “… the number of people registered considerably exceeds all estimates of the eligible population. What [the administration] calls evidence of democracy on the march is actually evidence of large-scale electoral fraud.”)

The Post also points out an apparent flaw in the president’s argument that bi-lateral talks with North Korea would jeopardize the six-nation talks already underway. The Post notes that “each of the other four countries in the talks has held direct talks with North Korea during the six-party process — and China has repeatedly asked the Bush administration to talk directly with North Korea. Moreover, the Bush administration has talked directly with North Korean diplomats on the sidelines of the six-party talks.”

The New York Times didn’t offer one of the carefully-produced “Fact Check” boxes that it has instituted of late, but in a “policy” story by David Sanger, it did highlight many of the candidates’ misstatements, including the mythical 100,000 trained Iraqi security forces and the exaggerated $200 billion cost of the war.

Over and above the specific issues the press chose to focus on, it’s encouraging to us that they are at long last making it a priority to tell news consumers what’s true and what’s not — and how candidates’ claims measure up to known facts.

Indeed, after months of suggesting just this sort of thing, Campaign Desk is starting to feel like a new father. If we had any money, we’d pass out cigars.

Zachary Roth

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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.