More Hat Tips Tragically Cut Down in Their Adolescence

Seems lately like every time Campaign Desk reaches upward to tip our hat, our fingers spasm and convulse just before reaching the brim.

After months of harping on news organizations big and small for continuing to churn out “he said/she said” campaign reporting, Campaign Desk was happily surprised when we spotted the headline on Richard Stevenson’s New York Times piece yesterday:

“Sifting for Truth as Bush and Kerry Wage a War of Words Over Iraq Policy.”

Finally, we thought, someone’s decided — for the sake of readers — to go panning for gold in the roiling waterways of campaign charges and countercharges. While we tip our hat to the concept of “sifting for truth” and hope that the Times continues to so sift (and that others get out their sieves and join them), Stevenson’s story left something to be desired. In short, the headline’s the best part. After that, Stevenson sifts as promised; but, unaccustomed to the practice, he grows bashful on us when it comes time to identify what nuggets he finds.

Stevenson leads with a multi-part question — “In asserting Tuesday that Senator John Kerry had shifted position once again on Iraq, was President Bush selectively quoting Mr. Kerry to distort what Democrats say is his nuanced but consistent record? Or was he accurately highlighting what Republicans say is the Democratic presidential nominee’s long history of unprincipled flip-flops?” He then takes the reader on a walk through the Land of Otohotoh (on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, a safe place where reporters have sought refuge for decades).

Here is something “Democrats frequently point out,” explains Stevenson; here is another thing that “Mr. Kerry’s camp points out”; and here is something that is “part of a [Bush campaign] effort to shift the national debate away from whether the invasion of Iraq was justified to whether Mr. Kerry could be trusted as commander in chief.” While it’s helpful to show readers how stump statements dovetail with campaign strategies, what’s missing is Stevenson’s voice, following through to tell readers whether the cited assertions and accusations hold water or not.

Another recent example of Nice Try, No Cigar: On Tuesday night, as a Campaign Desk reader brought to our attention, CBS News ran a short segment breaking down the familiar Bush campaign charge that Kerry is a “flip-flopper.” CBS’ John Roberts explained that the “flip-flopper” charge is part of a Bush campaign “strategy to undercut Kerry’s credibility,” and then described how a specific poll shows “the strategy seems to be working. “

Roberts aired two inconclusive examples and, in the end, summed it up: “So the big problem for Kerry, say some analysts, is not his record; it’s allowing President Bush to control the message.”

“Some analysts?”

Who are these previously uncited analysts? And why is Roberts relying on them to prop up his self-evident conclusion? More to the point, why did CBS News suddenly decide this week to examine a campaign charge that’s been kicking around for months? Because, Dan Rather told viewers, “today, for the first time, President Bush” personally called Kerry a flip-flopper, “a term … that he previously left to others.”

Now there’s a self-limiting criterion. Let’s hope that, in an age of campaign surrogates flinging charges and slogans around daily, CBS hasn’t decided to “sift” half-baked assertions or loaded accusations for truth only if and when they are uttered by a candidate himself.

If so, it could be a long wait for the next sifting.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.