At Spinsanity, we hold the media to a high standard, which we lay out in detail in All the President's Spin. The nation's press corps has a responsibility to fact-check the claims of politicians and expose any that are misleading, whether it's the first time the politician has made the claim or the 500th.
Unfortunately, the media often fail in this regard. Many faulty claims are not adequately debunked when first introduced, and then those claims become old news that are ignored even as politicians endlessly repeat them. To see if the press is doing any better in this regard, I looked first at two tired bits of deception from the two candidates -- George W. Bush's claim that John Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes, and Kerry's claim that the country has lost 1.6 million jobs under Bush -- and then a newer claim, Bush's assertion that Kerry would subject US national security decisions to a "global test" that he characterizes as a foreign veto.
Debunking two well-known deceptions - 98 votes to raise taxes, 1.6 million lost jobs
We have known that the first two claims are misleading for some time. On August 30, Factcheck.org showed that "43 [of the votes included in the total] would not actually have increased taxes. They were for budget bills to set target levels for spending and taxes in the coming fiscal years." In addition, "Most of the 98 votes were on procedural measures, such as votes to end debate or votes on amendments, and not on passage of the measure itself. More than once, the 98-vote total counts half a dozen votes or more on on a single bill." And I showed back in early September that the 1.6 million claim refers to private sector job loss; the latest figure for overall job loss under President Bush, which includes gains in public sector employment, is 821,000.
Nonetheless, both candidates continue to repeat these claims. Has the press done its job in debunking them? The evidence is mixed. Despite some apparent improvements relative to the 2000 campaign debacle, the press still frequently fails to point out that these two claims are misleading, even with the more intense scrutiny of the campaign season. And these particular claims should be among the easiest to fact-check -- they have already been definitively debunked, and they refer to statistics, rather than interpretations of quotes or other more subjective evidence. In short, if the media can't get it right on these two issues at this point in the campaign, we're in trouble.
My data come from news reports or feature articles in the Nexis database mentioning the two claims from the Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, four of the most important print outlets in the country (opinion columns, letters to the editors, etc. were excluded). The period covered is Oct. 4 to Oct. 14 of this year, which includes all three debates that covered domestic policy (Bush and Kerry's last two debates plus the Cheney-Edwards debate). I counted any statement in the reporter's voice that contextualized or criticized the claim as a debunking. "He said"/"she said" journalism, however, was not counted since it fails to clarify whether the claim is correct.
Starting with Bush, here is how the four media outlets did in debunking the "98 times" claim over the course of that period:
Overall, the press outlets in question did a reasonable job (certainly better than I feared), but the gap between the top and bottom lines represents a significant number of articles mentioning the claim that fail to debunk it.
When we turn the relative performance of the four outlets in terms of the consistency with which they debunked the claim, significant differences emerge - in particular, the poor performance of the New York Times and Washington Post, which frequently failed to correct Bush's misstatement. AP was the best.
We can also compare the number of times Bush and Cheney have repeated the claim on the campaign trail (as documented on Whitehouse.gov) versus the number of times it has been reported and debunked (or not) for each outlet.
Clearly, Bush's relentless repetition has the capacity to outstrip all but the most dogged journalists, but that is their job -- when the President of the United States says something misleading, it is news.
The media outlets in question have been better with Kerry's claim about lost jobs, as we can see in graphs of performance over time and within each media outlet. Still, however, any significant gap is unacceptable.
Again, AP was the most consistent in debunking the falsehoods. (Note that without a comprehensive source of Kerry transcripts comparable to Whitehouse.gov, I can't track the number of times he has made this claim.)
A turn for the worse - coverage of the "global test" distortion
To see just how bad things can get, consider Bush's claim that Kerry has proposed a "global test" would give other countries a veto over US foreign policy. In one Bush ad, for instance, the narrator states, "The Kerry doctrine: A global test. So we must seek permission from foreign governments before protecting America?" Again, this is easily debunked. As my Spinsanity co-editor Ben Fritz wrote, "Kerry did say [during the first presidential debate] that he believes a preemptive war waged by the US should pass a 'global test.' But in context, his meaning was quite different than what the Bush campaign is claiming: 'But if and when you do it, Jim,' Kerry said to Jim Lehrer of PBS, the debate moderator, 'you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.' Clearly, Kerry meant that a President must be able to demonstrate to the world that the preemptive war is being waged for legitimate reasons, not that foreign governments must provide 'permission.'"
Because this is a new and hotly partisan issue that has no correct objective answer, we should expect reporters to perform terribly, and indeed they have. Almost all of the four outlets in my pool have shied away from stating in their own voices that Bush's characterizations are misleading or incorrect. At best, they include Kerry's original quote from the first debate and leave the matter as "he said"/"she said." Even more disturbingly, many stories omit a quotation of Kerry's original statement entirely, letting Bush's out-of-context attack pass unchallenged.
Here's a look at the performance of the four outlets in question in the days since the first debate (Sept. 30-Oct. 14). Stories that provide Kerry's original quote and those that do not have been published roughly equally as often, with those omitting the quote pulling slightly ahead as the controversy has become considered less newsworthy. Those debunking it in the reporter's voice have been far less common.
Considering each news outlet separately, the Associated Press does the best once again, providing the most critical reporting as well as the most frequent inclusions of the full quote. Strikingly, the New York Times has never debunked the claim, and almost always omits Kerry's original quote. The Washington Post was not much better, while the Los Angeles Times falls somewhere in the middle.
Plotted over time against Bush's repetition of the claim (again, as documented on Whitehouse.gov), the news outlets are again revealed as being weak and ineffective. The President pounds the spin point, and the media ignores it or repeats it without debunking it, especially as the event fades into the distance:
What's striking is how inconsistent these media outlets are. They veer from debunking a claim one day to repeating it unchallenged the next time it appears. In some cases, they will even publish two or more stories on the same day, only one of which lays out the truth. Why? Excuses are not acceptable, especially now. Our press corps must be just as relentless as the politicians, or it will fail in its responsibilities to the citizens of this country. The choice is that simple.
[Addendum: I don't have a good explanation of why AP did so well on these three claims when they so frequently engage in pathological "he said"/"she said" journalism. In part, it may be a reflection of the fact that I included AP stories, but not AP Online stories (which may be more preliminary and less in-depth), and the fact that my sample picked up a large number of debate fact-checking stories.]