Yesterday, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she believed “that the president’s leadership and the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience.” “The emperor has no clothes,” she added. “When are people going to face reality?”

In an early version of its story, the Associated Press printed two responses from Republicans to Pelosi’s provocative comments. Here’s the first, from Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt:

The comments “represent a grotesque political attack. They’re simply outrageous and the American people will reject that type of blame America first. … American troops are bravely fighting the terrorist enemy and it is the terrorists who are responsible for the violence, not the president.”

And the second, from Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.):

… if all Pelosi could offer is taunting U.S. troops “by saying they are dying needlessly and are risking their lives on a shallow mission, then she should just go back to her pastel-colored condo in San Francisco and keep her views to herself.”

Pelosi’s statement was incendiary, and it’s not surprising that the other side reacted angrily. But neither of these statements seems to directly address what Pelosi said. Schmidt talked about “blame America first,” despite the fact that Pelosi did not, by any account, blame America — first, last, or otherwise. He also said that it was the terrorists responsible for the violence, not the president — despite Pelosi’s not ascribing any responsibility for “the violence.”

Reynolds reaches even further, claiming that Pelosi was taunting the troops “by saying they dying needlessly and are risking their lives in a shallow mission.” Pelosi wasn’t talking about the troops, of course, let alone taunting them — she was talking about the president. And, as a later version of the story points out, she doesn’t live in a “pastel-colored condo” — though we’re not sure how the color of Pelosi’s place is relevant to Bush’s performance in Iraq.

Well, that’s not exactly true. We know how this game is played: In a world of he said/she said journalism, reporters tend to print whatever nonsense comes out of the each side’s mouth. This time around, Reynolds thought he’d try to play to readers’ biases instead of engaging the issue. Representatives from both parties offer up verbal misdirection to reporters similar all the time, and it’s of little use to readers looking for substantive debate.

So here’s an idea: What if Associated Press reporter Jim Abrams followed up these irrelevant quotes by writing, “When asked to directly address Pelosi’s charges, he declined to comment.” Once they’ve been stung by a few such printed rebukes, politicians, spokesman, and political operators will think twice before offering up talking points and ad hominem attacks instead of actual responses. Journalists shouldn’t facilitate the exchange of empty rhetoric, as they so often do in the rush to print. If an AP writer doesn’t have time to check out each side’s assertions or get a comment more germane to the issue at hand, he should point out that the person he’s questioning apparently hasn’t fully addressed the issue either.

Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.