The Evolving Factcheck

By Liz Cox Barrett and Thomas Lang

On October 5, four years ago, in the hour following the vice presidential debate, NBC was the only network to run a segment “truth-squadding” the candidates. Lisa Meyers captained the squad, supported by what she called “our crack team of political researchers and producers who have been checking the candidates’ facts throughout the debate.” Meyers’ “crack team” managed to scrounge up three brief examples of how the candidates took “a few liberties with the truth.”

In the hour after Vice President Cheney and Sen. Edwards faced off Tuesday night, it was another story. Three of the five networks offered viewers truth-squadding of one sort or another: ABC, CNN, and NBC/MSNBC (CBS and Fox News didn’t).

Since truth-squadding seems suddenly to be all the rage at this late moment in the campaign season, Campaign Desk took a look at the various offerings from Tuesday night’s network broadcasts and several of Wednesday morning’s major newspapers — and how they compared to similar, albeit more anemic, efforts of four years ago.

NBC’s truth squad found itself under new leadership Tuesday night with Tom Brokaw’s pending replacement, Brian Williams, taking over as “precinct captain.” Williams focused on three specific claims. First, he used Cheney’s sound bites from a September 14, 2003 “Meet the Press” segment to put the lie to the vice president’s statement Tuesday night that he had never “suggested there is a connection between Iraq and 9/11.” Next up, Williams disputed Sen. Edwards’ claim that Halliburton received a “no-bid contract” in Iraq. As Williams pointed out, and confirms, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, Halliburton was the only company “in a position to provide the services within the required time.”

Williams closed with the dispute over what percentage of allied casualties in Iraq are incurred by United States troops, noting that “each [VP candidate] uses the available stats from Iraq,” and affirming that Edwards’s claim that American soldiers have been 90 percent of coalition casualties was correct. Cheney, Williams told viewers, had factored Iraqi security force deaths into his total, but even using that formulation, he was wrong to claim that Iraqi troops and police had incurred 50 percent of all such deaths. As wrote yesterday, available statistics show only 38 percent of allied casualties have been suffered by Iraqi security forces.

Over on ABC, Jake Tapper made an appearance beside a running “Fact Check” banner to sort out the dispute over the cost to date of US military action in Iraq. Tapper correctly identified Edward’s $200 billion figure as hyperbolic; Cheney’s $120 billion price tag is closer to the truth. Like NBC, Tapper also highlighted Cheney’s previous statements connecting Iraq and 9/11 — something he now likes to say he never said.

Shortly before midnight, ABC’s Peter Jennings chimed in on the somewhat less important — and yet, so very popular with the press — Cheney statement that, even though he is the presiding officer of the Senate, and Edwards is a senator, he, Cheney, had never met Edwards until the moment Edwards walked out onto the debate stage Tuesday night. “A lot of us were surprised about Vice President Cheney saying he had never met Sen. Edwards before,” Jennings said. “We speculated maybe they met once or twice, but apparently not.” ABC fact-checked nothing on this one — as it quickly became apparent when Democratic rapid response operatives crowed that the two men sat together at a prayer breakfast in 2001, among other “casual encounters” that even Republicans now acknowledge.

CNN, during its post-VP-debate discussion four years ago, got bogged down in tax policy, forcing a ruffled Judy Woodruff to admit she was “lost in the numbers.” Ostensibly neutral political analyst Bill Schneider stepped in and offered this helpful summary: Republicans offer control (over how you use your money, for example); Democrats offer security.

Four years later, Schneider is once again the go-to-guy on CNN, offering Tuesday night a more evolved fact-check segment. Unlike Williams and Tapper, Schneider paid no heed to Cheney’s risen-from-the-dead claims about a 9/11-Iraq connection, choosing instead to clarify both the correct price of US efforts in Iraq and the percentage of allied dead in Iraq that came from US forces. On the latter point, Schneider — like NBC’s Williams — expressed disapproval by characterizing Cheney’s tactic of switching the “base of that calculation to include Iraqi security forces” as off-target.

And instead of truth-squadding Tuesday night, both CBS and Fox trotted out campaign surrogates live from “spin alley” to avow victory and spew talking points.

As for their print peers, with so much misleading back-and-forth to choose from, the “crack teams” (to use Lisa Meyers’ 2000 term) at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune all opted — like NBC — to begin their debunking with Cheney’s assertion that he has never tied Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to 9/11. Additionally, all five newspapers weighed in on the candidates’ conflicting Halliburton-related claims, and both the Iraq war’s dollar cost and cost in casualties.

Other areas of contention explored were Cheney’s claim that 900,000 small business would be affected by Kerry’s proposal to roll back tax cuts on those earning over $200,000, the back-and-forth on the number of jobs lost under Bush’s watch, and the drastically different pictures the candidates painted about the state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Unlike most of their friends on TV, several of these newspapers had already hopped on — or at least set a foot or toe on — the fact-checking bandwagon four years ago, although overall their efforts was more tentative in tone and less thorough than yesterday’s. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler provided some quality “truth-squadding” in 2000 — sample headline: “Both Debaters Play Games with Numbers” — although the Post had yet to come up with the nifty “For the Record” slug it uses today. The New York Times’ Richard W. Stevenson took a solid stab the day after the VP debates four years ago, offering “explanations of some of the [candidates’] assertions” — again without the benefit of the “Fact Check” header that hovers over David E. Rosenbaum’s work today.

As Campaign Desk has noted dozens of times, for most of the year the press entirely abdicated its elementary responsibility to ascertain the veracity of campaign charges and counter-charges. We welcome this belated realization on the part of reporters and their editors that it is their job to do a little research and to introduce known facts to the equation. And we welcome all their efforts — via eye-catching banners and special news slugs — to make sure their audience knows, in contrast to 2000, that they’re making an effort.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.