Jan 1 2001

Serial Exaggerators

Media's double standard on political lying

Throughout the presidential elections, mainstream media outlets were quick to charge Democratic candidate Al Gore with exaggerations: Whether he was talking about inventing the Internet, inspiring Love Story or discovering Love Canal, you just couldn’t trust what Gore was saying.

If you looked into these incidents, you found that in each case the media’s exaggerations were worse than Gore’s: It’s largely true that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” while in Congress, as he said (he never said he “invented” it); according to Love Story author Erich Segal, he did help inspire the book’s male hero; and the claim to have discovered Love Canal was a misquotation that was later retracted by the outlets that made it. (See Washington Monthly, 4/00.)

Still, the theme that Gore was a liar was a constant in his media coverage. Each of the above factoids appears in the Nexis database hundreds of times; the story about Gore and the Internet shows up more than 3,000 times. A study by Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (7/27/00) found that lying was the second most common theme in Gore stories, just behind “scandal-tainted.” (The top Bush theme found, by contrast, was that he was a “different kind of Republican.”)

Gore’s supposed propensity to exaggerate became a major issue again during the presidential debates. Journalists were fervently interested in Gore’s claim in the first debate (10/3/00) that he accompanied FEMA director James Lee Witt on a trip to Texas–hardly an issue of pressing public concern, yet a Nexis search shows that Witt’s name comes up some 250 times in post-debate coverage. Gore’s explanation that he often travels with Witt and had confused the specific occasion was given little credence–because of Gore’s track record on the Internet, Love Story, etc.

Media also showed a keen interest in Gore’s recounting the story of a Sarasota, Florida student who was forced to stand in her science class due to overcrowding. While many reports chalked it up as another Gore embellishment, few journalists acknowledged that the story was essentially accurate, and can be documented by reports from the local newspaper documenting the overcrowding problems that have resulted from a $17 million budgetary shortfall (Salon, 10/11/00).

Strangely, the media seem less interested in Gore’s distortions when they are directly connected to public policy issues. During the second debate, Gore claimed that “for 24 years I have never been afraid to take on the big drug companies.”

In fact, one of the first major issues of the campaign involved Gore’s efforts on behalf of drug companies to get South Africa to stop manufacturing affordable versions of patented AIDS drugs– a life-saving move that is allowed under international trade laws, but would have threatened pharmaceutical industry profits. (See Extra!, 9-10/99.) FAIR could find no mainstream news outlet that brought up this contradiction.

Bush’s free pass

With the issue of exaggeration in the news, reporters could have extended their scrutiny to the claims of Gore’s rival, Republican candidate George W. Bush. But the media as a whole passed up several such opportunities–including several that dealt with important policy matters.

* During the second debate (10/11/00), Bush said that with his tax plan, “by far the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.” In fact, according to Congress’ bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, households making less than $40,000–roughly the bottom half of the economic ladder–would receive only 10 percent of Bush’s income tax cut.

This does not include the effects of eliminating the estate tax; an analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found that the total Bush tax plan gives less than 13 percent of its cuts to the bottom 60 percent of households, and 51 percent to the top 5 percent. Only a handful of journalists (notably the New York Times‘ Richard Stevenson, columnist Paul Krugman and the Washington Post editorial page) pointed out this whopper.

* Again in the second debate, Bush claimed that “we spend $4.7 billion a year on the uninsured in the state of Texas.” But “we” turned out not to mean his state government, but anyone within the boundaries of Texas, including federal government officials. The state of Texas actually spends less than $1 billion on the uninsured, with the rest of Bush’s figure coming from private, local and federal spending. According to USA Today (10/18/00), one of the few outlets to scrutinize Bush’s claim, hospitals in Texas account for almost half of such spending.

* Touting his support for a patients’ bill of rights in the third debate (10/17/00), Bush said: “As a matter of fact, I brought Republicans and Democrats together to do just that in the state of Texas, to get a patients’ bill of rights through.” In fact, Governor Bush vetoed the Patients’ Bill of Rights the Texas State Legislature passed in 1995. When it was passed again in 1997, the bill’s support was strong enough to withstand his threatened veto (New York Times, 10/18/00).

Most of Bush’s debate distortions, and several others like them, were mentioned in scattered articles in various news outlets. But none of them became the focus of sustained media attention, like Gore’s FEMA gaffe or the Florida school-crowding anecdote. And none of them resulted in media head-scratching about why Bush can’t seem to tell the truth.

“The story line is Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough,” according to ABC‘s Cokie Roberts (Washington Post, 10/15/00). “In Bush’s case, you know he’s just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.” A “story line,” of course, is another way of saying that the media have preconceived notions about the candidates, which Roberts suggests are influencing reporters’ decisions about which distortions are newsworthy and which are not.

One result of the media’s drumbeat coverage of Gore’s “exaggerations” was suggested by the exit polls. To the question, “Which one candidate quality mattered most in deciding how you voted?,” the single most chosen response was “honest”–picked by 24 percent of respondents. Of this quarter of the population, 80 percent said they voted for Bush. Only 15 percent supported Gore.

In fact, of course, Gore is not trustworthy–like any politician, his statements should not have been taken on trust. Nor should reporters have accepted what Bush said without doing the essential journalistic task of checking the facts. But all too often, media behaved as though applying skepticism to a candidate’s words is something that one does only in unusual circumstances.