October 22, 2004
On September 30, a FAIR action alert urged the Associated Press and Washington Post not to exercise "false balance" in their reporting on the exaggerations and deceptions coming from the major presidential candidates. By straining to include an equal number of Bush and Kerry statements to "fact check," news outlets give the impression that both sides are equally culpable of deceptive rhetoric.
On October 20, the Washington Post put a new spin on that formula by suggesting one candidate has increased his output of inaccurate rhetoric: John Kerry. The Post's Howard Kurtz wrote that "Kerry has pushed the factual envelope less often than the president-- until recently," suggesting that Kerry's deceptions now equal or exceed Bush's.
But the evidence Kurtz presented did not support his charge. He listed four of Bush's exaggerations, including his characterization of Kerry's health plan as "government-run," his claim that Kerry "voted for education reform and now opposes it, " and his repeated use of an out-of-context Kerry quote as proof that Kerry thinks terrorism is merely a "nuisance."
But Kurtz presented only two examples of Kerry pushing the "factual envelope," and neither one makes a convincing case for Kerry's misuse of facts. Kurtz wrote that Kerry plays loose with the facts when he says that Bush "has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent." Kurtz countered this by noting that Bush, "while favoring allowing younger workers to put part of their benefits in private accounts, has never put forth a plan-- and has vowed that any change would not affect current retirees."
But Kerry is not talking about current retirees; the TV ad in question is based on a Congressional Budget Office study of one of the plans put forth by Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, and the possible cuts in benefits would apply to future retirees. It is true that Bush has not explicitly endorsed any particular privatization model-- instead describing his commission's proposals as ''a variety of ideas for people to look at'' (debate, 10/13/04)-- but given that the contributions being made by workers now go to pay the benefits of current retirees, any plan that significantly shifts worker contributions to private accounts will require increased taxes, reduced benefits or both.
The second Kerry deception, according to the Post, concerns the military draft. Kurtz wrote that "Kerry said last week that there is a 'great potential' that Bush will reinstate the draft." This is inaccurate, according to Kurtz, because Bush has issued denials about reinstating a draft: "The president has repeatedly denied this, and Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt, in a common campaign refrain, said the charge shows Kerry 'will do or say anything to get elected.'"
By this logic, the Post would have ruled "inaccurate" a hypothetical ad in 1988 that asserted that the elder George Bush would raise taxes-- because he had declared "read my lips, no new taxes." As any political observer knows, it's hardly "push[ing] the factual envelope" to suggest that politicians don't always keep their promises-- but by the Post's standards, Kerry is being deceptive if he doesn't take Bush at his word.
And there are, in fact, credible reasons to believe that Bush policies might require a draft in a second term. As Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent column (New York Times, 10/19/04), a study commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found that the U.S. has "inadequate total numbers of troops and lack of long-term endurance" (Navy Times, 10/4/04). And Bush constantly stresses that he is more willing to take pre-emptive military actions than his opponent-- actions that would be difficult if not impossible to undertake without a draft, given how stretched U.S. troops already are.
(Interestingly, also on October 20, Washington Post online columnist Dan Froomkin used the same two examples-- Social Security and the draft-- to make the claim that Kerry was making "basically groundless," "essentially unsupported charges" as part of a "sordid" political game. Froomkin's column does even less than Kurtz does to justify the assertion that Kerry's charges are inaccurate.)
Kurtz is not afraid to assert that Bush has been more deceptive than Kerry-- in the past. When talking about the present, however, he continues the Post's practice of straining to counterbalance outright Bush misstatements with something that can be painted as a Kerry stretch-- no matter how far-fetched.
ACTION: Please write to Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler and ask him to address his paper's pattern of holding Kerry and Bush to different standards of accuracy.
Michael Getler, Ombudsman
Phone: (202) 334-7582
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please send a copy of your correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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