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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Fairness Doctrine

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; 8:49 AM

Some conservatives are having a grand old time beating up on Mark Halperin.

The reason: ABC's political director wrote a now-leaked memo saying there is no need for artificial balance in truth-squadding the claims and charges of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.

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He didn't say the press should be tougher on Bush, as some are suggesting. He said there were more distortions on the Bush side, and that the coverage should reflect this. In other words, if one side is using a howitzer and the other a popgun, you don't have to portray them as both firing ammunition, without making distinctions.

The New York Times and Washington Post, by the way, have written pieces saying the Bush team is pushing the factual limits with its rhetoric against Kerry. Bush/Cheney put out an e-mail slamming Friday's NYT story.

But the Halperin memo is being slammed in some quarters as a call for unbalanced coverage. As Fox anchor (and former ABCer) Chris Wallace put it: "An ABC News memo has been leaked that suggests the network is holding President Bush and Senator Kerry to different standards."

Actually, it doesn't say that at all. And the irony here is that Halperin is one of the few major media types willing to criticize his profession for sometimes displaying a leftward tilt--prompting hosannas from the right wing crowd. Now that he's saying the Bush camp engages in more distortions and should be called on it, the right is suddenly whacking him as unfair and unbalanced.

As someone who does the "ad watch" feature, I've found exaggerations and distortions on both sides. For months there were more in the Bush ads because the president's team was going negative while the Kerry camp was staying positive. Now they're both pretty negative.

I try to report every bit of truth-stretching I can from the Kerry side. (He keeps saying the war has cost $200 billion when, so far, it's $120 billion. He's said that Bush believes the outsourcing of American jobs is good; the reality is that some of his aides say it has larger economic benefits.) But the president says every day that Kerry is pushing a "government-run" health care plan. Simply not true. It might be a bad health care plan, or a ridiculously expensive plan, but it relies on the current system of private health insurance. Is that a bigger deal? Yes. Should reporters keep pointing that out? You bet.

The Halperin memo was leaked to Drudge, who reported it thusly:

"Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win. We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that. I'm sure many of you have this week felt the stepped up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage.

"This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions. It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right."

Josh Marshall says Halperin is right:

"Various right-wing barkers are trying to make it out as though Halperin has been caught in some impolitic or embarrassing remark. But quite the contrary is the case.

"This is simply a news organization trying to grapple with the same reality that every respectable news outlet is now dealing with -- how to report on the fusillade of lies the Bush campaign has decided to use against John Kerry in the final weeks of the campaign.

"The plain intent of the memo is to tell ABC reporters that they should feel neither obligated nor permitted to equate the level of deceptiveness of the Kerry and Bush campaign's if and when they are in fact not equal.

"Everyone can see that they are not equal. Halperin is just saying it. And in doing so he has run smack into the epistemological relativism that now defines the Republican party.

"The most noteworthy thing I've seen in the right-wing response is that there seems to be little effort to deny or engage the question of whether the Bush campaign is being qualitatively more dishonest than the Kerry campaign. All the whining is focused on the fact that any news organization would have the temerity to try to distinguish between them."

Columbia Journalism Review compares two fact-checking efforts and favors the Posties:

"Both the New York Times and the Washington Post on Saturday offered readers versions of long-overdue pieces truth-squadding candidates' claims. The Times once again assigned the task to David E. Rosenbaum alone, who weighed in with a piece cautiously headlined, 'Different Interpretations on War, Jobs and Health.' The Post saw fit to assign three reporters (Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly shared the byline, with reporting help from Thomas E. Ricks) to tackle its truth-squadding piece, headlined 'Plenty of Flaws Among the Facts.'"

The question of distortion figures prominently in the latest campaign back-and-forth, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

"At events in New Mexico and Colorado, President Bush seized on a quote from Kerry in a published article in which the Massachusetts senator said he believes the threat of terror can be reduced to the level of a 'nuisance' that doesn't affect most Americans' daily lives.

"'I couldn't disagree more,' Bush told a rally in Hobbs, N.M. 'Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance, our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorist networks, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world.'

"Kerry campaign aides immediately protested that the president was taking Kerry's words out of context and urged voters to read the entire article. 'Considering that George Bush doesn't think we can win the war on terror, let Osama bin Laden escape and rushed into Iraq with no plan to win the peace, it's no surprise that his campaign is distorting every word John Kerry has ever said,' Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement."

Okay, here's the entire New York Times Magazine article.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting back against Sinclair Broadcasting and its plan to air that anti-Kerry movie. Here's my report.

And as long as we're doing the linking thing, here's a look at how the networks are trying to avoid the Election Night fiasco of four years ago.

Kerry is looking stronger in the USA Today poll:

"Unease about the country's direction has eroded Bush's standing and created an opening for Kerry. And the Democrat holds a decided advantage on the domestic issues that will be the focus of their last face-to-face encounter.

"The poll, taken Saturday and Sunday, puts Kerry at 49% and Bush at 48% among likely voters. Independent candidate Ralph Nader is at 1%. That's almost unchanged from a Gallup survey taken a week earlier."

Fascinating -- except that the WashPost tracking poll has Bush up by 6.

The Friday debate is still reverberating through the media echo chamber. Rich Lowry was wowed by the prez:

"I thought George W. Bush was terrific during Friday night's debate. He was passionate, engaged, and combative, while still being likable and funny. . . .

"Bush smoked John Kerry out on leaving Saddam in power. Kerry said Saddam would 'not necessarily' be in power if he had the choice. How utterly Kerryesque. His answer on abortion was also a mess masquerading as nuance -- as Kerryesque as it gets. Bush made the case on the economy, pointing out the downturn started before he took office. He effectively parried on the environment, health care, and stem cells (although initially his answer on embryonic-stem-cell research was confusing). He was strong on the Patriot Act, and I was shocked how critical Kerry was of it, which seemed a different emphasis since his post-primary re-re-positioning on it. . . .

"All that said, Kerry is a talented debater. It's his record and his weaknesses on the issues that will sink him in this race, not his performances during these debates."

Roger Simon thinks he knows why Bush has been struggling:

"George W. Bush was petulant in his first debate and pugnacious in his second. Maybe for his third he ought to try presidential.

"Though he did better in his second debate against John Kerry in St. Louis than he did in his first debate at Coral Gables (he could hardly have done worse), I get the feeling these debates are not helping Bush and are helping Kerry.

"Bush is paying the price for avoiding many press conferences and for appearing only in front of adoring groups. He is not yet quick enough on his feet and, on occasion, has not been up to the questioning in the debates.

"Kerry, on the other hand, no great master on the stump, has been helped enormously by one aspect of the debate format: He must keep his longest answers to two minutes. And, believe me, Kerry is better at two minutes than he is at 40 minutes."

Garance Franke-Ruta analyzes the post-debate spin game:

"You know things have run badly off-track when the Bush-Cheney campaign, which will have spent more than $200 million by the time it's done, is reduced to citing Kathryn Jean Lopez' thoughts posted on National Review Online's blog, The Corner, as evidence of a comeback. But they did. They also sent along positive quotes from National Review editor Rich Lowry -- made on right-wing news network Fox News, no less! -- along with Andrew Sullivan's stylistic musings from AndrewSullivan.com and several quotes from The New York Times' op-ed page's house conservative David Brooks. Brooks, of course, used to hang his hat at the Weekly Standard, and the Bushies clearly didn't want to play favorites between the country's top two conservative magazines. . . . Even former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was brought into the mix of quotes, though he was described as an 'MSNBC analyst' by the Bush campaign.

"If the Kerry campaign did the equivalent and flooded the non-partisan national press with a post-debate bolus of approving citations from The Nation, The Progressive, DailyKos.com, and Jim Hightower, they'd be laughed at on every Sunday talk show in America. Doing something like this is a sign that the Bush campaign is increasingly desperate or increasingly insular -- or possibly both."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum reflects on GOP rule on the Hill:

"The Boston Globe ran an excellent 3-part series about how Republicans have abused their majority position in Congress to rule the legislative process in the House with an increasingly iron -- and often corrupt -- fist. Backroom deals, closed debates, abuse of legislative traditions, and procedural skullduggery are now the rule rather than the exception.

"Needless to say, these are all things that Democrats were guilty of when they were in power too. But are Republicans just returning Democratic favors or are they really worse than the Democrats ever were? You should read the whole story to get the true flavor of what's happened, but to me the real strength of the Globe analysis is that they dug up hard numbers to answer that question. Here they are:

"For the entire 108th Congress, just 28 percent of total bills have been open to amendment -- barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94.

"Congressional conference committees, made up of a small group of lawmakers appointed by leaders in both parties, added a record 3,407 'pork barrel' projects to appropriations bills for this year's federal budget, items that were never debated or voted on beforehand by the House and Senate and whose congressional patrons are kept secret. This compares to just 47 projects added in conference committee in 1994, the last year of Democratic control.

"The House Rules Committee frequently decides bills in hastily called, late-night 'emergency' sessions, despite House rules requiring that the panel convene during regular business hours and give panel members 48 hours notice. So far in the current Congress, 54 percent of bills have been drawn up in 'emergency' sessions, according to committee staff members. . . .

"So: are Republicans (a) just giving Democrats a taste of their own medicine? Or are they (b) genuinely more corrupt, more secretive, more bullying, and more power hungry than Democrats ever were?

"Answer: B. And it only took them ten years, rather than the 40 it took the Democrats."

Remember those Medicare videos that closed with "I'm Karen Ryan, reporting?" Except that they were fake news stories and Karen Ryan was a hired consultant? Now the Education Department is doing the same thing, with Ryan, and has hired the PR firm Ketchum to rate the department's coverage, says the AP:

"In ranking newspaper coverage of No Child Left Behind, Ketchum developed a 100-point scale. Stories got five points each for positive messages, such as mentions that the law gives choices to parents and holds schools accountable.

"Five points also went to stories that send a message that 'The Bush Administration/the GOP is committed to education.' Stories lost five points for negative messages, including claims that the law is not adequately funded or is too tough on states.

"The news review for the department also rated education reporters, giving higher scores to their stories if they were deemed positive. . . . In one period, for example, Ketchum rated reporters at USA Today and at newspapers in Atlanta; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pa.; Louisville, Ky.; Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis; and Salt Lake City."

I'm sure this column would get a zero today.

Finally, baseball is looming as a campaign issue, says the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"John Kerry must think New York is in the bag.

"'We all want the same things,' Kerry told supporters over the weekend in Ohio. 'We want our country to be respected in the world, we want good jobs, and we all want to beat the New York Yankees!'"

Speak for yourself, senator.

"As his hometown Boston Red Sox prepare to play the Yankees for the American League pennant, Kerry later told supporters in Florida: 'Folks, it's been so long - everybody's got to root for the Sox this year, don't you think? C'mon!'

"President Bush, former co-owner of the Texas Rangers, may be the better-known baseball fan, but Kerry has made the long-suffering Red Sox's playoff push a new campaign motif - for better or for worse."

So why doesn't Kerry push to change the time of tomorrow's debate so he doesn't have to miss Game 2? A whole lot of viewers might find the boys of October more entertaining.

© 2004 washingtonpost.com