When Reporters Transcribe

At first glance, Bill Adair and Adam C. Smith’s article in today’s St. Petersburg Times — headlined, “When Candidates Attack” — looks like one of those fact-check pieces popping up in newspapers recently. Selected Bush and Kerry comments are arranged, for example, by handy issue-based sub-heads: “On the War in Iraq,” “On Taxes,” “On Healthcare,” etc.

Alas, looks can be deceiving, because what Adair and Smith filed today is short on both facts and checking. It is, in fact, the opposite, a veritable he said/she said laundry list, a sort of “Greatest Hits” list of the candidates’ attacks on one another. The reporters even introduce their list as such: “From the stump, here are [the candidates’] tried and true attack lines.”

Under “On Healthcare,” for example, we learn that “Bush attacks Kerry’s health plan by conjuring images of the huge government program pushed by President Clinton” while “Kerry slams Bush for refusing to allow the importation of cheaper drugs and for refusing to let Medicare negotiate with drug companies for lower prices.” Then readers get to read Kerry and Bush saying as much in their own words. No effort is made to help readers navigate the tit-for-tat, to understand how and when the candidates’ attacks stray from the facts (or not).

What is the purpose of this piece? Damned if we know. Maybe it was meant for the rare voter who can’t get enough of campaign charges and counter-charges flying at him, or for die-hard political junkies looking for a clip-and-save post-election keepsake. But what about the rest of the Times’ readers — the ones who, with the election just six days away, could really use helpful information?


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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.