Sep
29
2004

Post-Debate Fact-Checking Is Media's Main Job

September 29, 2004

Who "wins" the presidential debate on Thursday may well depend on how well media do their job on Friday.

In past debates, post-debate commentary has frequently focused on the candidates' style, body language and other cosmetic issues. The L.A. Times (9/29/04) suggested that these seemingly unimportant details can swing a campaign: "Who could have predicted that in 1992 the camera would catch an apparently unengaged President George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a debate with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton? (Bush lost the election.) That in 2000, Gore would be remembered for inappropriately grimacing and sighing during his first debate with Bush? (Gore lost.)"

Of course, if one were told that the media would play tape of these moments over and over again, than it would be relatively easy to predict that these would be the moments that voters remember. Something that isn't widely remembered is the fact that initial post-debate polls showed Gore winning that debate in the minds of voters (Daily Howler, 9/28/04); it was only after media commentary focused obsessively on Gore's reaction shots that the perception was created that his performance was a disaster.

The fact is, voters don't need to be told whether they are put off by a candidate's style or mannerisms; they are fully capable of analyzing their own reaction without pundit intervention. What the public cannot easily do is determine whether factual claims made during a debate are accurate or not-- and in this far more critical role, media commentators have often fallen down on the job.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the 1992 vice presidential debate, Vice President Dan Quayle (10/13/92) charged that Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, proposed that "the taxpayers of America spend $100 billion a year on environmental projects in foreign countries"; when Gore maintained that he hadn't written that, Quayle cited a page number where the proposal could be found.

One of the few media outlets to look up what the book actually said was the New York Times, which reported the next day (10/14/92) that while the book did say $100 billion a year was needed for global environmental projects, "Mr. Gore notes in the book that such levels of spending would be impossible given the country’s economic distress and calls on the other industrialized countries to contribute." But the Times neutralized its attempt at fact-checking by prefacing it with the statement, "There are elements of truth in the statements of both men," and labeling the passage "Truth on Both Sides."

George W. Bush made a series of false or deceptive claims in his debates with Al Gore in 2000: He asserted, for example, that in his tax plan, "by far the majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder" (10/11/00), when Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation (5/3/00) had found that the bottom half of the economic spectrum would receive only 10 percent of Bush's income tax cut.

At another point (10/11/00), Bush declared that "we spend $4.7 billion a year on the uninsured in the state of Texas." But the state of Texas itself spent less than $1 billion a year on those without medical insurance; only by adding together all federal, local and private spending can you come up with Bush's figure (Window on State Government, 5/10/00). Few outlets bothered to examine what "we" meant in Bush's statement.

One of the most dramatic moments during the Bush/Gore debates was when the two candidates heatedly clashed over what Bush's Medicare plan offered. It was this dispute that produced Gore's infamous sighs, which received far more attention than the question of who was actually telling the truth in the argument. Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler (9/28/04) summed up the New York Times' coverage:

"In the next day's fact-checks, Robin Toner reviewed the heated drug debate, summarizing what the hopefuls had said. (Toner: 'Mr. Bush accused Mr. Gore of using "Medi-scare tactics," while Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of advancing a plan that offered little or no help to most Medicare beneficiaries.') But incredibly, she never said who had been right in the factual battle the two hopefuls waged, and we have never found any place where the Times told readers that Bush had been wrong on the basic facts of this matter."

This kind of coverage evades journalism's most important responsibility-- to separate truth from falsehood. If the November election is decided on the basis of trivia, post-debate coverage that fails to do its job will bear much of the blame.