Reporters Flunk a (Global) Test

In last week’s presidential debate, John Kerry told Jim Lehrer that he would never involve the country in a pre-emptive war without first making sure that Americans “understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing” and without passing “the global test” of being able to “prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

As Will Saletan of Slate notes today, Kerry used the phrase “global test” some minutes after saying, in his first answer of the debate, “I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security.”

Seems pretty clear to us. But since then, the phrase “global test” has become a political football. The morning after the debate, Bush mocked Kerry for the phrase, telling a crowd in Ohio, “Sen. Kerry’s approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.” Throughout the weekend, the Bush campaign trotted out spokespeople to repeat the phrase “global test” ad nauseum on cable news — it’s been uttered on 30 separate CNN broadcasts since Thursday, according to Nexis.

Yesterday, the campaign pressed the issue, announcing the release of a new TV ad, titled, appropriately, “Global Test,” that continues the attack, asking, “A global test. So we must seek permission from foreign governments before protecting America?” That got Democrats worried enough that they quickly announced an ad of their own, which responds to the attack.

Let’s see how the networks have treated the issue. Are they providing the fuller context for viewers, or just mindlessly reporting the accusation?

CBS News has a mixed record. On Friday, reporter John Roberts told viewers, “[T]he president found an opening in Kerry’s claim that pre-emptive military action must pass the global test, a line so sweet, he made it the centerpiece of today’s stump speech.” CBS then showed a clip of Bush saying, “The president’s job is not to take an international poll. The president’s job is to defend America,” and offered no hint that the attack was misleading.

Reporter Mark Knoller did better the following day. After showing clips of Bush repeating the “global test” attack, Knoller summed up: “It’s a misrepresentation of what Kerry said, but it’s giving Mr. Bush a chance to score points two days after the debate.”

Knoller did better than Roberts, but he too failed to show just why and how the “global test” line, as it morphed into a mainstay of Bush’s stump speech, had become a “misrepresentation.”

NBC was worse. On Saturday, reporter Rosiland Jordan noted, without elaboration, “a clear attempt by the president to mock John Kerry for saying he would use a global test before using military force during Thursday night’s debate.”

Yesterday, NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla offered us only he-said/she-said on the issue. He announced that, “the White House is blasting Kerry for suggesting during the debate that American foreign policy must pass a global test.” Then he played clips from the Bush and Kerry campaigns’ competing new ads on the subject, neglecting to provide any independent assessment of where the truth lies.

ABC hasn’t reported at all on the “global test” attack. And although the phrase has been mentioned frequently on CNN, it’s usually been by partisan guests, rather than as a part of CNN’s reporting.

In the face of the conventional wisdom that Bush botched last Thursday’s debate, and polls indicating that Kerry’s performance may have helped him, it’s not surprising that the Bush campaign has clearly seized on the “global test” line of attack as an attempt to salvage something from a bad night at the podium.

But it’s dismaying that the networks don’t hold those claims up to a simple test — measuring them against the spoken words available for all to see in what is probably the most widely-available and thoroughly-studied transcript of recent times.

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.