Still Ambivalent After All These Years

Part one of a series evaluating the media’s performance during the 2004 campaign.

In a perfect world, the press would facilitate the spread of fact and block the proliferation of falsehoods. Alas, the American political system is plagued by a political media obsessed with strategy, attracted to the trivial, essentially too distracted to bother with the mundane details of fact and fiction. This year was no exception.

From day one, the campaign press showed a maddening unwillingness to brush up on the basic facts most important to Americans. Instead of bookmarking the slightly intimidating Bureau of Labor Statistics webpage, reporters hung on to and transcribed verbatim many of the loaded partisan talking points delivered by the candidates via email.

A Tom Raum-penned Associated Press story from way back in March helped pass along misinformation from both campaigns, evidence early on of a campaign press whose members proved to be equal opportunity stenographers.

Picking up a Republican talking point wholesale, Raum wrote:

Cheney claimed that Kerry had voted for higher taxes some 350 times in his Senate career …

And from the Kerry campaign Raum wrote:

The Kerry campaign responded that the Bush-Cheney economic plan ‘has lost 3 million jobs …’

Nowhere did Raum think it necessary to point out that, in fact, the “350 times” statistic represented a distorted look at Kerry’s record, or that only 2.3 million jobs had been lost under President Bush as of the end of March, 2004.

This automatic pilot approach to reporting — due to either laziness or ineptness, or both — continued throughout the campaign season on an endless number of topics from the war in Iraq to the politics of the flu. The framework remained the same no matter what: a quote from a candidate or campaign surrogate reprinted without question by the reporter or editor, followed by (if available) a quote from the candidate’s opponent, also printed without question.

This at a time when the data-rich Internet is available to any reporter at the touch of a keyboard. (To be fair, that same Internet permits campaigns and party committees to pelt reporters all day — and night — with an endless stream of new talking points, just as distorted as the old ones.)

Campaign coverage is a living animal fed on a daily diet of campaign events, spiced up by the occasional scandal with the potential to consume the candidacy of one or both of the men running for office. Fact-checking failures were not just confined to undistinguished accounts of the daily campaign grind. Consider the press’ attempt, or lack thereof, to provide voters an accurate account of President Bush’s and (later in the campaign) Sen. Kerry’s military records.

The Bush National Guard story resurfaced (after being originally reported by the Boston Globe in 2000) in late winter 2004 during the Democratic primary. And with the story’s reemergence, Campaign Desk saw a momentarily rejuvenated White House press corps, demanding that the president be held accountable for his promise to release all his records. Unfortunately, that exuberance failed to motivate the reporters to take the time to familiarize themselves with the simple timeline of the president’s National Guard service. As the story dominated the news cycle in February, the campaign press struggled to learn easily obtainable facts, such as the number of months early that Bush left the national guard (eight) or the number of transfer requests Bush submitted before receiving approval to fulfill his duties in Alabama (two).

The same ineptness carried over to coverage of Kerry’s military service after the senator promised to release all of his military records in April, and again when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed its factually questionable campaign against the Democratic nominee. Most of the charges leveled by the SBVFT were unfounded and could be dismissed with an afternoon’s read of available Navy documents. Yet, for months, until the end of August, campaign reporters unquestioningly passed along falsehoods, including the charge that Kerry’s wounds were not severe enough to warrant a Purple Heart (severity of injury is not a consideration in the awarding of Purple Hearts).

In late August, thanks in no small part to Sen. Kerry’s own belated offensive against the SBVFT, the press did its best to insert fact back into the record, but as poll after poll showed, it was too late. And soon enough the story turned to the Republican National Convention when, for the first time, fact-check stories became part of the weekly routine. These stories and television snippets truth-squadding the candidates, which continued through the debates, were a welcome respite from a campaign overrun with lies.

While the fact-check trend was a marked improvement, its effectiveness was often limited.

First off, many of the fact-checks focused on dubious claims that had already influenced the decision-making process of the voters, such as the revised Bush campaign talking point that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes (another inflated number) or the Kerry campaign talking point that the Iraq war had cost $200 billion (also exaggerated). While it’s never too late to ensure that readers receive the truth, polling showed that in these cases, many of them had already made up their minds. The horse was out of the barn — months before a negligent press suddenly got busy shutting barn doors and windows.

Second, the fact checking, in both print and television, was ghettoized — denoted, for instance, by a “for the record” heading in the Washington Post and a “fact check” banner on ABC News. While this technique can grab the reader’s or viewer’s attention, it also reveals the news media’s reluctance to acknowledge that the candidates’ deliberate attempts to mislead the public is the story that should be making front page news, not the latest musical chairs game shuffling various campaign personnel.

Third, evenhanded-to-a-fault notions of “objectivity” obscured more than one real truth. Thus, fact-checks often suffered from a bending-over-backward attempt to present an equal number of misleading claims from each candidate. This did not represent reality, and is approximately as realistic as expecting each candidate to weigh the same as the other, or dress the same, or behave the same. Furthermore, the fact-checks would have been more effective with stronger language and less-tempered headlines. At times, asserting the newspaper’s voice is the most powerful way to convey a message, yet it’s something reporters and editors fear to this day. In the face of well-funded political operations that exist to deceive, news organizations should not be hesitant to say so.

Over the course of the campaign, the press did improve its function in the charade, from mere transcribers for the campaigns to independent actors, with the ability to sort fact from fiction. By September, most of the press corps could anticipate how Kerry would distort the latest job numbers in his next appearance or how the Bush campaign would carefully pick through Kerry’s Senate years for votes that could be construed only loosely as an endorsement of higher taxes or appropriations.

But in other ways the campaign press never lived up to its billing as a shield against propaganda. Most of the failing came in an utter inability to knock down the numerous Bush campaign talking points — in part due to the fact that the president’s campaign was more aggressive on this front than Kerry’s was. (For example, all campaign season, President Bush slyly got away with citing a statistic saying that three-fourths of al Qaeda “known leadership” had been captured, when this number only applied to a list of pre-9/11 al Qaeda leadership.)

Here’s hoping that over the next four years the press can cultivate the voice it found all too late in 2004, and make facts the story in 2008.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.