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.

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.