Washington Post 3, New York Times 1

Following Friday night’s debate, Campaign Desk was struck by the stark differences between the “fact-checking” efforts of two major newspapers.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post on Saturday offered readers versions of long-overdue pieces truth-squadding candidates’ claims. The Times once again assigned the task to David E. Rosenbaum alone, who weighed in with a piece cautiously headlined, “Different Interpretations on War, Jobs and Health.” The Post saw fit to assign three reporters (Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly shared the byline, with reporting help from Thomas E. Hicks) to tackle its truth-squadding piece, headlined “Plenty of Flaws Among the Facts.” (This, in addition to the Post’s helpful “debate referee,” a black-and-white-clad icon who pops up in the online Post’s transcript of each debate to “examine the candidates’ claims and charges.” The Times’ debate transcripts are not only un-refereed, they’re hidden away in the pay-only archive after a few days).

Just as the waffling headline promises, the Times’ Rosenbaum took readers on a toothless tour of differing “interpretations,” arranging his story into eight topic-based subheadings (Jobs, Taxes and Budget, etc.), presenting Bush’s “interpretation, Kerry “interpretation,” and “the facts,” and then leaving it to readers to discern which “interpretation” better jibed with “the facts.”

One example of how the Times left readers hanging: Rosenbaum took the time to recount what each candidate said “in a squabble over whether Mr. Kerry’s tax plan would hurt small businesses” (including Bush’s “Need some wood?” comment), but never addressed whether Mr. Kerry’s tax plan would hurt small businesses. (Turns out, as Kessler et al. make clear in the Post, this Bush claim — specifically that Kerry’s plan would raise taxes on 900,000 small businesses — is “misleading” in that Bush is defining “small business” in such a way that “every partner at a huge accounting firm or at the largest law firm would represent a small business.”)

It was, literally, a different story in the Post. Kessler and Connolly led with an example on which both candidates were a bit off, but then went on to write: “As in the previous debate and in his stump speech, Bush repeated a number of assertions about Kerry’s voting record on taxes, intelligence spending and budgets that are out of context and misleading.” They then laid out for readers how each “assertion” is lacking context or otherwise misleading. (“Out of context and misleading,” it should be noted, are words that do not appear anywhere in the Times’ piece.)

On health care, the contrast between the Times’ fact-checking effort and the Post’s is particularly stark. Under its “health” subhead, the Times merely repeats an audience member’s question to Bush about why he had “blocked the importation of prescription drugs from Canada,” and repeats Bush’s answer, including the part about how, come December, people “may hear me saying I think there’s a safe way to [import such drugs].” On this same point, the Post wrote that Bush “suggested he is on the verge of supporting the legal importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from countries such as Canada, which would be a major reversal.” Kessler and company also debunked another Bush claim on health care — they actually call it a “specious accusation” — that loomed large during the debate: that Kerry “is proposing a ‘government takeover’ of the U.S. health system.” The Times did not touch this one.

The job of the press isn’t to say both sides are spinning — it’s to tell us who is spinning, and how (a point made in a recent memo apparently leaked from ABC News). Or, as an ABC spokesperson told the New York Post, “We are not interested in taking sides, we are only interested in getting at the truth.’”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.