While fact-checking is an essential media function, particularly during an election year, it's a hollow exercise if journalists start with the assumption that both sides must be found equally guilty of falsehoods. It is, in fact, not always the case that both campaigns are responsible for deceptive claims to the same degree; coverage that insists on a false even-handedness, while pretending to expose political mendacity, actually gives cover for it by neutralizing criticism with the "they all do it" defense. Such coverage may protect news outlets from charges of bias, but it does a disservice to voters.
This kind of artificial balance was demonstrated by Associated Press ( 9/25/04) when a story originally headlined "In New Attacks on Kerry, Bush Twists His Rival's Words "--which accurately reflected the focus of the story--was sent out again by the wire service with the headline "Bush, Kerry Twisting Each Other's Words." The one example AP gave of Kerry's word-twisting was barely comprehensible: An email from the Kerry campaign had cited Bush's remark that he had seen "a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America," saying that this meant Bush thought "the future of Iraq is brighter than the future of America."
The wire service reported, in supposed contrast, that "the president wasn't comparing Iraq's future to that of the United States, only accurately reflecting one recent survey in Iraq and the latest trends in America that asked participants for their assessment of the direction their countries are going." As "the direction their countries are going" is another way of saying "the future," AP seems to be saying that talking about public assessments of a country's future shouldn't be taken as suggesting anything about that country's actual future. It's a petty distinction, if it's a distinction at all.
The Washington Post, in a debate preview piece ( 9/30/04), illustrated the same phenomenon. Reporters Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly found some fairly serious untruths by Bush--that Kerry plans to "nationalize" healthcare, for example, or his claim that "We've strengthened Medicare" even though "Medicare's independent trustees...report that the [Bush's Medicare] law severely weakened the program's fiscal stability." Then they bent over backwards to find Kerry distortions to mirror those of Bush--often coming up with discrepancies that are trivial at best.
The Post took issue, for example, with the Kerry statement, "The administration misled America, the United Nations and the world," saying, "there is little evidence the Bush administration purposely tried to deceive Americans and other world leaders about the threat posed by the alleged weapons."
While whether or not the administration "misled" is surely a matter of opinion, there's plenty of evidence to support the claim that it did so. To cite just one example, Secretary of State Colin Powell in his speech to the U.N. ( 2/5/03) prominently cited Iraqi defector Hussein Kamal's figures on chemical weapons produced by Iraq--without mentioning that Kamal had told U.S. and international authorities that these stockpiles had all been destroyed (Newsweek, 3/3/03).
The Washington Post also complained that "in a recent line of attack, Kerry has said the cost of Bush's 'go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion.' This is an exaggeration, because it combines the amount already spent--about $120 billion--with money that is expected to be spent in the coming year or requested by the administration." Surely, though, the "cost" of something is the total amount of money that one has to pay for it; no one would describe the down payment on a car as the "cost" of the car.
Puzzlingly, the Post took Kerry to task because he "emphasizes the loss of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, which overstates the total job loss." The Post is not saying that the 2.7 million figure is inaccurate; it's saying that Kerry shouldn't use that number because job loss in the manufacturing sector is worse than in other areas. One might as well say that you shouldn't talk about how cold it is in Alaska, because it's colder there than in other parts of the country.
The paper also scolded Kerry for crediting Bush with "jobs that pay us $9,000 less than the jobs that are going overseas"--a criticism the Post called "an extreme extrapolation of figures contained in a study published by a labor-backed progressive group." It's hardly an "extreme extrapolation"; the think tank in question, the Economic Policy Institute, calculated ( 1/21/04) that jobs in U.S. industries where employment is growing paid an average of $35,410, whereas jobs in shrinking industries paid $44,570. The difference between the two figures is $9,160. And noting that the data comes from a "labor-backed progressive group" hardly constitutes a persuasive rebuttal.
Virtually all of the Post's criticisms of Kerry's supposed "misleading claims" are similar to these--statements that are inaccurate only when held to an impossible level of scrutiny, at which virtually any sentence could be found to be "wrong." Indeed, if Kerry's criticisms of Bush had been as far-fetched as the Post's criticisms of Kerry, the Post could have written a much more compelling article.
ACTION: Please write the Washington Post and Associated Press and remind them that true fairness is not automatically finding deception on both sides, but in holding both sides to the same standard of truthfulness.
Michael Getler, Ombudsman
Ann Levin, National News Editor
As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc email@example.com with your correspondence.
NOTE: Please also see the Action Alert: Washington Post Still Stretching to Find Kerry Fibs (10/22/04)