We did a double-take when we saw this headline on NYTimes.com:

“Major Kerry Donors Actually Give More to Bush.”

In a story based on a study by the Center for Responsive Politics, Glen Justice reports that, “Through January, 9 of Mr. Kerry’s top 20 donors in the presidential race favored the incumbent Republican.” That echoes the language of the Center itself, which headed its news release “Bush Raising Campaign Funds From Kerry’s Top Contributors.”

Sounds like big news. We had images of fat-cat donors peeling off ten $100 bills for Kerry, but then sending twenty $100 bills off to the Bush re-election committee. But that wasn’t what Justice’s story was about. Read deeper and you learn:

“Employees at Citigroup Inc., the financial services giant, are Mr. Kerry’s third-largest source of money, at more than $79,000. Yet company employees gave Mr. Bush more than twice that, $187,500, in the same period.”

So Kerry has raised a lot of money from people who work for Citigroup, but Bush has raised even more money from other people who also work for Citigroup. The word “donors” in the headline and the words “top donors” in the story don’t refer to individual donors, but to sources of donations.

The reality is newsworthy; large corporations have mechanisms that encourage employees to contribute, and that can add up. But employees are contributing only on behalf of themselves, not their employer. And, since individual donors can’t give more than $2,000 to any presidential campaign (or more than $5,000 to any presidential candidate’s PAC), that would make impossible for a “major Kerry donor” who had given the maximum allowable amount to the Democrat to have given more to Bush.

But readers don’t necessarily know that. When they read that, “9 of Mr. Kerry’s top 20 donors favored Bush,” it’s reasonable — but wrong — for them to conclude that the word “donors” refers to individual people.

In cases like this, words matter — those of both the reporter and the headline writer. And, as Mark Twain once noted, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

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.