Was this a story?

NBC’s “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” last night ran a short segment on the impact of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal in the presidential election. Chip Reid’s piece focused on Republican criticism of the Kerry campaign for sending an email that mentioned the abuses before asking supporters to donate to the campaign.

NBC showed Senator Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) telling a Senate hearing on the abuses yesterday: “This unfortunate situation at Abu [Ghraib] prison is actually being used as a fund-raiser by the Kerry campaign. I just find that appalling.”

As Reid explained, the email begins, “We have all been shocked by the pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison.” It goes on to ask readers to sign a petition calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to be fired. At the bottom, as with other Kerry campaign emails, are the words, “Donate Now,” with an icon allowing readers to click through and contribute.

Next, NBC gave us Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, seconding Allard’s charge that the email was “inappropriate.”

Tad Devine of the Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly, disagreed, pointing out that the Bush campaign used images of Ground Zero in a campaign commercial in March, and arguing that the email was not aimed primarily at soliciting donations.

Then, since NBC fears compromising its “objectivity” by offering its own assessment of these claims, it brought in a non-partisan “expert” — Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity — to do it for them. Lewis didn’t think the GOP complaints amounted to a hill of beans: “Given the things that the Republican Party and this president have done around September 11th itself, this is an extraordinary amount of hutzpah to cry foul over this.”

So let’s look at how NBC treated the issue. They presented us with a claim being made by one campaign. The opposing campaign responded, saying the claim is baseless. Then NBC’s chosen expert agreed that the claim is baseless.

Viewers could be forgiven for asking: Why run the piece?

Politicians launch confrontational charges because they know the press will cover them — even when they don’t have much substance. We’re pretty confident that Senator Allard was pleased to see his comments make the evening news, even though NBC ultimately concluded that they were unfair. Simply by appearing on prime-time television, Allard’s comments gain a wide audience.

So here’s a suggestion to the media for how to respond when the campaigns start throwing around accusations that, in your judgment, don’t deserve to be taken seriously: Instead of pretending to seriously consider the charges, then having an expert tell us those charges don’t merit serious consideration, just ignore them. And use the time to run stories about issues that matter.

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.