A little precision from the press corps can sometimes go a long way.

Yesterday John Kerry gave an interview with Associated Press Radio. Referring to the war in Iraq, the Massachusetts senator said, “This is not a success. Why should we reward more of the same?”

In writing up those comments, as ABC’s “The Note” pointed out, both Patrick Healy of the Boston Globe and Mike Glover of the Associated Press used an “f” word to characterize Kerry’s remarks: “failure.”

In a piece headed, “Kerry Says Bush Fails in Handling Iraq War,” Healy wrote that Kerry “said the administration has failed and does not deserve a second term.”

Glover went even further. He led his story, “Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said yesterday that the war in Iraq is a failure and that a shake-up is needed to end the Bush administration’s mistakes and incompetence.”

“Failure” is a strong word for the normally cautious Kerry. And there’s no evidence in either story that Kerry ever used it.

Glover’s wording — that Kerry called the Iraq war a failure — suggests that Kerry sees the effort as irredeemable. Saying that something “is not a success” isn’t the same thing, since it allows for the possibility that it could be a success at some point in the future.

Healy’s characterization is better — his interpretation that Kerry claimed “the administration has failed” leaves room for Kerry’s obvious belief that a different administration could succeed. But Healy still elides the subtle but crucial distinction between calling the current Iraq policy a “failure” and the suggestion that success is still possible.

Kerry chose his words carefully, and with good reason. It’s not hard to see his political opponents seizing on Kerry’s remarks and accusing him of undermining the war effort by calling our troops failures.

It’s easy enough for politicians to distort such quotes for political gain — they certainly don’t need the help of journalists to do so.

Zachary Roth

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

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.