One of the oldest rules of journalism is the hoary maxim given to green reporters by crusty city editors everywhere:

“No matter who said it, check it out; if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

And each election year, that maxim is duly ignored by political reporters scrambling to make deadline. So it is that already, with snow still on the ground, partisan talking points have begun to find their way, unchallenged, into the reports of the mainstream campaign press. Writing on “Tapped,” Nick Confessore points out that Associated Press reporter Lolita Baldor essentially regurgitated a GOP press release in a story criticizing John Kerry’s defense voting record. Confessore also noted that Slate’s Fred Kaplan did his research on the same issue and got the facts right.

Baldor’s piece is almost completely devoid of context — relying on Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson, she writes that Kerry voted “against spending on weapons systems that have proven invaluable in the Persian Gulf, including the F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft” — implying that Kerry serially voted down one weapon system after another.

Baldor is not alone. WendellGee points us to a nearly identical case on CNN last night, where Judy Woodruff, in an interview with Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), goes through most of a Republican-generated list of “something like 13 different weapons systems that they say the record shows Senator Kerry voted against” — apparently unaware that all of the systems were in the same defense appropriations bill. That’s exactly the mistake Baldor made.

As Kaplan points out:

Kerry was one of 16 senators (including five Republicans) to vote against a defense appropriations bill 14 years ago. He was also one of an unspecified number of senators to vote against a conference report on a defense bill nine years ago. The RNC takes these facts and extrapolates from them that he voted against a dozen weapons systems that were in those bills. The Republicans could have claimed, with equal logic, that Kerry voted to abolish the entire U.S. armed forces, but that might have raised suspicions.

Baldor and Woodruff found it easier to regurgitate partisan rhetoric than to research the nuances.

Reporters should resist the urge to lean on storylines crafted by political operatives. Whether RNC or DNC, they’re selling a political pitch, not a database.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.