It is the function of journalism to separate fact from fiction. In covering the Republican National Convention of 2004, the media made isolated efforts to point out some of the convention speakers' more egregious distortions, but on the whole failed in their vital role of letting citizens know when they are being lied to.
To take the example that dominated the convention perhaps more than any other claim: Professional politicians and political correspondents alike know that legislators frequently vote against appropriations for a variety of reasons, even though they do not seek to eliminate the programs being voted on. They know that different versions of the same appropriation are often offered, and that lawmakers will sometimes vote for one version and against another--not because they suffer from multiple personality disorder, but because that's how they express disagreements about how government programs should be funded.
No one who has spent any amount of time in or around government would find this the least bit confusing. Yet news analysts generally allowed Republican Party leaders to pretend shock that Sen. John Kerry would vote against an $87 billion appropriation for the Iraq War--as if this meant that Kerry opposed giving troops "money for bullets, and fuel, and vehicles, and body armor," as George W. Bush declared (9/2/04). (The references to Kerry voting against body armor were particularly disingenuous, given that the $87 billion only included money for body armor at the insistence of congressional Democrats--Army Times, 10/20/03.)
And journalists were complacent as Republicans expressed mock bafflement over why Kerry would vote against this bill when he had voted for another version of the bill (or "exactly the same thing," in former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's words--8/30/04). The reason that Kerry introduced an alternative bill--because he wanted to pay for the appropriation by raising taxes on the wealthy rather than through deficit spending--was well-publicized at the time (Washington Post, 9/18/03). Yet rather than challenging the dishonesty of this centerpiece of the Republican attack on Kerry, CNN's Jeff Greenfield after Bush's speech (9/2/04) called it "one of the most familiar and effective lines of his stump speech."
Bush himself threatened to veto the Iraq spending bill if the reconstruction aid for Iraq it included was in the form of loans rather than grants; by the logic of the Republican convention, Bush "flip-flopped" exactly the same way that Kerry did on the $87 billion by supporting one version of the bill and opposing another. Yet a Nexis search of television coverage of the convention turns up only one reference to Bush's veto of the bill, by Paul Begala on CNN (9/1/04). Overwhelmingly, TV pundits covering the convention allowed the charade surrounding the $87 billion to pass without critical comment.
But overlooking distortions was the norm in television's coverage of the convention. When Dick Cheney spoke (9/1/04), he said of Kerry: "He declared at the Democratic Convention that he will forcefully defend America after we have been attacked.... We cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it and that includes the use of military force."
Kerry did say in that speech (7/29/04): "I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and a certain response." But he couldn't have meant that that was the only time military force might be required, since he had said earlier in the speech that "the only justification for going to war" is "to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent."
Cheney went on to say, "Senator Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve, as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics." In this he echoed Sen. Zell Miller (9/1/04), who charged, "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations." In his acceptance speech, Kerry actually said, "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security."
Miller and Cheney's speeches were filled with similar misrepresentations of Kerry's positions and record. Yet afterward, Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham, appearing as a pundit on MSNBC (9/1/04), had this analysis:
It's not that journalists never attempt to fact-check claims made in political speeches--sometimes effectively, sometimes less so. (A couple of the better efforts were by AP's Calvin Woodward--9/2/04 --and the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler and Dan Morgan, 9/3/04). But these efforts are generally segregated from regular news coverage of the convention, not incorporated into the main reports and analysis, as if sorting out what's true and what isn't were a departure from normal journalistic practice.
When MSNBC's Chris Matthews (9/1/04) questioned Miller about the fairness of his litany of weapons programs that Kerry "tried his best to shut down," he was following a line of debunking that was laid out six months ago by Slate's Fred Kaplan (2/25/04), who pointed out that Republicans were citing Kerry's "no" vote on the 1991 Defense appropriations bill as if it were an attempt to eliminate all Pentagon spending. What was remarkable was that Matthews was willing to bring up this criticism in a live interview--a breach of media operating procedure so dramatic that it provoked Miller to say he "wish[ed] we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel."
But ascertaining the truth is the responsibility of every journalist in every story. It's the first point in the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics: "Journalists should test the accuracy of information from all sources." It's the ubiquitous reports that analyze the aesthetics of oratory and speculate on the impact speeches will have on the horserace that ought to be the exception.
It would hardly be unprecedented for the media to consistently call attention to the veracity of a political campaign. During the 2000 campaign, reporters and pundits delighted in pointing out examples of what they said were "exaggerations" by Vice President Al Gore. Unfortunately, these examples were often false--contrary to more than a thousand media assertions, Gore never claimed to have "invented" the Internet, and he actually did serve as a model for the character in Love Story, according to the novel's author (Daily Howler, 12/7/99, 12/3/02).
It's telling that when faced with real distortions, not on trivial matters of little consequence to voters or the campaign, but on life-or-death matters that are central to the presidential debate, most journalists become agnostics regarding the truth or falsity of the smears they pass along.