Sign of the Times

The New York Times has a special “Voter Guide 2004” section today. Along with statistical breakdowns of the battleground states, and profiles that struggle to find anything new to say about either candidate, the Times includes a “greatest hits of fact-checking” piece, written by David Rosenbaum. The item, which is divided into topics like “Iraq,” “al Qaeda,” and “Jobs,” re-prints “the highlights” (their word) from previous Times fact-check pieces — most of them about the debates.

We’re glad the Times is making an effort to let its readers know what’s true and what’s not in the candidates’ rhetoric, and in general we’ve been heartened by the sudden proliferation over the last few months of similar “fact-check” pieces.

But the exhaustive nature of today’s effort by the Times suggests a question we’ve been wondering about since the fact-check fad began: Why are editors ghettoizing these pieces into separate sections, instead of providing this kind of context in the relevant news story, as an integral part of the press’ daily coverage of the race?

In fairness, some outlets have been getting better about assessing the candidates’ claims in their news stories. More and more, when candidates are quoted taking liberties with the facts, reporters are feeling confident enough to let readers know.

But even this doesn’t go far enough. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: When a candidate engages in distortion as a central element of his attack, that fact — not the substance of the original attack — should be the focus of the news coverage. After all, if it’s newsworthy that one candidate is attacking his opponent, isn’t it even more newsworthy that he’s misleading voters in doing so?

Which brings us to another problem with the mainstream media’s approach to fact-checking. There has been plenty of spin from both sides this campaign season. But the press’ reflexive instinct to equate the distortions of one side with those of the other isn’t fair to either. When one candidate is distorting the words of the other, or exaggerating the cost of a program or the number of jobs lost, that distortion should be the central focus of the article. But rarely is any attempt made to look at the wider context in which these inaccuracies appear, to assess which are the most egregious, and to distinguish between the candidates’ use of such distortions. The stretch for artificial balance destroys any sense of the magnitude of the sins.

Take, for example, the most aggressive piece by the Times to date, taking Bush to task for several distortions. It ran on October 7 under the headline, “In His New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limits on the Facts.” But as Todd Gitlin pointed out last week in his cameo appearance in the Times “Public Editor” column, the piece relied on qualifiers — “several analysts say,” “some Democrats said” — in characterizing Bush’s strategy. Even at its most aggressive, the Times couldn’t bring itself to assert the fact of Bush’s distortions in its own voice.

Until and unless the press stops restricting fact-checking to separate venues, or to a mild sentence or two of polite disagreement after each misleading quote — rather than inserting it forcefully into the dominant narrative of the press coverage — the campaigns will calculate that it’s still worth their while to distort and mislead.

So yes, we’ve come a long way. But we’ve also still got a ways to go.

Zachary Roth

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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.