Check, Please!

Let no claim go unchecked

Perhaps you’ve read about Mitt and Rudy’s escalating scrap over who is tougher on illegal immigration? A typical campaign-season clash.

Here’s how The Associated Press reported on it, in a nutshell:

“Romney accuses…”

“Giuliani denies…”

“Romney blames…”

“…Romney said…”

“Giuliani’s defense…”

“And [Giuliani’s] campaign accused…”

“…[Giuliani’s] longtime aide said…”

“…Romney says…”

“…[Romney’s] spokesman Kevin Madden said…”

In fairness, the AP’s Libby Quaid does pause mid-article to observe that while “Giuliani and Romney are talking tough on immigration… their records are not necessarily tough” and then cite, bullet-point-style, two examples of each candidate arguably having in the past spoken or behaved in a less-than-tough manner on immigration. So clearly Quaid did some sort of research on the two candidates’ records on immigration (as one might expect or at least hope). Not enough research, apparently, to prevent the following unchecked claim — offered by Romney as evidence of his toughness on immigration — to slip into her piece: “Romney says he tried to curtail the problem [of illegal immigration] by deputizing state police to enforce federal immigration laws.” Again, the reporter has obviously done some examination of Romney’s record and she (or perhaps one of the other three AP reporters who contributed to the piece) should therefore have known and told readers that Romney did this “deputizing” three weeks before he left office.

As ABC News’ Jake Tapper reported: “Romney aides talk about the governor’s agreement with the federal government to allow Massachusetts state troopers to arrest and seek the deportation of illegal immigrants. What they don’t emphasize, however, is the fact that that agreement was reached in the closing days of his term, in December 2006, and was immediately rescinded by his replacement, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. The 30 state troopers initially assigned to receive specialized training from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency never received their training.”

This is how The Boston Globe’s Brian C. Mooney put it: “That state trooper initiative, signed by Romney three weeks before leaving office, was largely ridiculed as grandstanding by critics who said he was burnishing his conservative credentials for a presidential run. The troopers never underwent training by the federal government, and Governor Deval Patrick, the Democrat who succeeded him, rescinded the agreement a week after taking office.”

Here we have pertinent and readily-available information — context illuminating a candidate’s claim — left out of the AP’s report (a report picked up by newspapers and websites coast to coast). This is but one very small example of unchecked he-said/she-said reporting and we’re still early in the campaign season, but political reporters must be ready to help readers navigate the coming storm of half-truths and accusations on the campaign trail.

One suggestion (plea?): when reporting on a given day’s mudslinging, instead of ghettoizing the “fact-checking” into a handy list of bullet-points shoehorned into an article — a technique popular during the 2004 election — why not apply this sort of skepticism throughout the entire piece, to each and every claim and counter-claim?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.