Falling Over Backward Seeking Balance

Yesterday afternoon, Howard Kurtz appeared on CNN’s “Judy Woodruff’s Inside Politics” to fact check the presidential candidates’ attacks on each other’s health care plans. Kurtz kicked things off with a clip of President Bush saying that “the federal government is going to run [Kerry’s health care plan],” a claim Kurtz euphemistically called “misleading” because “the government wouldn’t run health care in a Kerry administration.”

Next, Kurtz said that a new Bush attack ad potentially overestimated the cost of Kerry’s health care proposal — and pointed out that the estimate in the ad comes from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He also questioned the ad’s substantive criticisms of Kerry’s plan, noting that one of those criticisms also applies to the present healthcare system and that another is based on “no evidence.”

Not bad so far. But Kurtz then turned his attention to Kerry’s rhetoric. First, he seized on a line from a Kerry attack ad, in which an unidentified female says, “George Bush’s attacks on John Kerry’s healthcare plan are called ‘not true,’ ‘outright fabrications.’”

Kurtz’ response: “Says who? An ABC News report and a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, along with other news organizations.” Completely aside from the fact that the new answer to “Says who?,” based on this segment, is, “You, Mr. Kurtz,” this is nothing more than a simple sourcing of Kerry’s claims — not a fact check. Next, after the unidentified female returns to assert, “it’s Bush that lets insurance companies overrule your doctor,” Kurtz says this:

But Kerry is wrong to say the president lets insurance companies reject treatments. That’s a health care system that’s been in place under previous presidents as well. And whether Kerry’s complicated plan will actually cut costs remains to be seen.

True, presidents up to and including Bush oversaw a health care system that “lets insurance companies reject treatments.” But how does that make Kerry “wrong” here? If you can explain, drop us an email, ‘cause we’re stumped. (As for the second part of Kurtz’s comment, we don’t doubt that what will happen if and when Kerry becomes president “remains to be seen.” We’re just not sure to whom that isn’t already obvious.)

Kurtz, who often does good work, seems here to be overreaching — striving for a balance that simply isn’t borne out by the facts. This leads him to try to create a picture of two candidates engaged in similar transgressions, even though, on the issue of health care, Bush has lately employed more misleading rhetoric than his opponent. Last week, ABC News political director Mark Halperin said in an internal memo to his staff that he and his colleagues “have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.”

Or, to put it another way: If one candidate tells five lies and the other tells two lies, a news outlet should call all seven misrepresentations for what they are, not strive for false balance. To do so isn’t bias — it’s accuracy.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.