Mix Two Parts Talking Point with One Part Extra Sugar, Stir, Bake and Serve

Conventions provide an opportune time for savvy political operatives to dust off, wax, and buff an old talking point until it shines like new, in hopes that journalists will let the carefully parsed assertion slide into the public mind unfiltered.

We came across a classic example of this technique while watching Tom Brokaw interview long-time Bush advisor Karen Hughes on today’s edition of MSNBC’s “Brokaw in New York.” Brokaw asked Hughes about Bush’s consistency (or lack thereof) on the question of whether the war on terror can ever be definitively “won.” In response, Hughes asserted, “We’ve captured two-thirds of the members of al Qaeda.”

Political gunslingers routinely take a grain of truth and massage it into a pearl. But in this case, Hughes took the art one step farther — she started with an official Republican talking point that is months old and through the process of strategic condensation, converted it into a startling (and undocumented) new declaration. And Brokaw, an old hand who should know every trick in a political operative’s arsenal — even an operative as slick as Hughes — let it slide.

The official talking point that has been flowing from the mouths of Bush administration officials and Bush campaign surrogates for months refers to the supposed capture of two-thirds of the pre-Sept. 11 al Qaeda leadership, not to al Qaeda’s entire troop strength. Chapter Two of the White House’s “Record of Achivement” report released last Friday reads, “Of the senior al Qaeda and associated leaders, operational managers, and key facilitators [that] the United States has been tracking, more than two-thirds have been detained, captured, or killed.” (Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, as the New York Times reported on August 10, while there have been significant arrests of top-level al Qaeda operatives, “the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.” Or, as former counterterrorism official and al Qaeda expert Richard Clarke put it ten days later on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” “what is now apparent is that, while [al Qaeda managers] were caught or killed, they were replaced.”

Hughes has not been the only convention-goer to exaggerate a standard talking point, like a hot rodder customizing a tired old jalopy. And Brokaw hasn’t been the only journalist to take the bait. Texas Gov. Rick Perry earlier told the National Federation of Republican Women, “Today, two-thirds of those known al Qaeda terrorists have been captured or otherwise taken out of action.” The Austin-American Statesman reprinted the statement without elaboration.

It’s bad enough when seasoned journalists fall for a conflated fact. But it’s truly dispiriting when they swallow without questioning an old talking point that has been stripped of qualification and polished to a brand new sheen.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.