Not All Letters are Created Equal

Here’s a perfect example of where the press corps’ obsession with “even-handedness” has led us: Reporters stretching to argue that both sides are behaving comparably, when the facts just don’t support that.

No, this isn’t about Swift Boats (although coverage of that story has suffered from the same phenomenon.) Instead, we were pointed by a reader to a Washington Post piece that appeared yesterday, in which Paul Farhi wrote:

Thanks to some nifty Internet technology, the campaigns of President Bush and John F. Kerry are making it easy for their supporters to pass off the campaigns’ talking points as just another concerned citizen’s opinion. Pro-Bush or pro-Kerry letters bearing identical language are flooding letters-to-the-editor columns.

Sounds like a neat catch. First Farhi lays out the Bush campaign’s shenanigans, detailing how letters containing identical phrasing that praised the president’s economic policies recently appeared in about 20 daily newspapers across the country. The letters were generated, Farhi reports, by a “cut-and-paste” form on the Bush campaign website.

So has Kerry’s campaign been putting out similar “propaganda”, as The Post labels it? Not quite. The Kerry website urges volunteers to write letters-to-the-editor, and offers tips and “talking points,” but nowhere does it provide actual letters for volunteers to cut-and-paste. Or, if it does, Farhi offers no examples of “pro-Kerry letters bearing identical language flooding letters-to-the-editor columns,” as promised.

Instead, he gives us the following example: A Kerry supporter wrote a letter that starts off, “In his inaugural address, President Bush called on Americans … to improve their communities and touch the lives of their neighbors,” — a phrase taken from the Bush campaign’s site. The letter then reverses course, asking, “But what has he actually done? … His unprecedented commitment to violating international law and human rights is without precedent.”

It’s absurd to equate this letter — which expresses its own point of view by deliberately attaching a new and opposite significance to the Bush campaign’s words — with the cut-and-paste tactics used by the Bush campaign.

Whether the issue is trifling, as in this case, or genuinely important, too many reporters continue to live in fear of appearing to take sides — of writing “He does; she doesn’t,” even when that is the case.

Zachary Roth

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.