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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Let the Fact Checking Begin!

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 30, 2004; 11:59 AM

Fact-checking what the presidential candidates say in tonight's debate is such a critical aspect of the coverage that several media outlets this morning decided: Why wait?

Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post: "For many viewers, the information will seem new, but both men have been road-testing their claims as they have barnstormed the nation, in the political equivalent of an out-of-town tryout for a Broadway show. . . .

"At first glance, a candidate's assertion may have the ring of truth. But on close examination, many of their pronouncements turn out to be exaggerated, lacking in context or wrong."

For instance, Kessler and Connolly write, while "Bush emphasizes his efforts to avert war," the facts suggest otherwise:

"[T]he White House very quickly gave up on the inspection process and assumed a war footing several months before the March 2003 invasion, according to administration officials. The administration rejected several compromise proposals from other nations that would have delayed an invasion and allowed inspectors to continue searching for weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found after the invasion, and much of the prewar intelligence the administration used to justify the invasion was later found to be wrong."

As for Kerry, "In a recent line of attack, Kerry has said the cost of Bush's 'go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion.' This is an exaggeration, because it combines the amount already spent -- about $120 billion -- with money that is expected to be spent in the coming year or requested by the administration."

Bob Deans and Scott Shepard write for Cox News Service: "For the most part, the contenders haven't made up fibs out of whole cloth. Instead, they use a few threads from each other's positions to spin a loosely-woven tapestry in which night masquerades as day. Here are some such issues that may come up in the debate."

Among the assertions they question:

• "Kerry didn't support troops, voted against funding." (Not really true.)

• "Iraq diverted resources from Afghanistan." (Partially true.)

• "Kerry prefers Saddam." (Not according to Kerry.)

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Here's a look at some of the likely lines of attack and at the reality behind them.

• "Kerry is a waffler on Iraq.

"Even Kerry's supporters concede he's done a poor job explaining his views on Iraq, but he's been consistent on some key points: He's never backed away from his vote authorizing war, and he's said repeatedly that Bush should have sought more international help. . . .

• "Bush is misleading Americans about the situation in Iraq.

"Sweeping generalizations about a country with 25 million residents in an area roughly the size of California are risky, but Bush is clearly downplaying the severity of the problems."

Ken Guggenheim of the Associated Press also fact-checks a presidential debate -- but in this case, the one from four years ago.

"Consider these words from Gov. George W. Bush when he debated foreign affairs with Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000:

• " 'Strong relations in Europe is in our nation's interest.'

• " 'If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're humble but strong, they'll welcome us.'

• " 'We're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops.'

"None of those remarks characterizes Bush's presidency."

Particularly in the past week, the political press corps has come under fire from bloggers, op-ed columnists -- and from within -- over its propensity to be ruthlessly spun, particularly when it comes to presidential debates.

But these articles are signs that it won't get fooled again. At least not completely.

Bloggers Unite to Fact-Check the Debate

And here's another way to make sure that the substance of Bush and Kerry's comments are fully and quickly assessed.

Some key political bloggers, who have so effectively proven their ability to hold the press accountable, will tonight be posting their own debate fact-checks -- and will be asking their readers to find and document substantively incorrect statements by the candidates, as well.

I've already talked to several bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum and they're on board. I urge others in the blogging community to join in the experiment. Just make sure you e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com so I know you're out there.

In tomorrow's column, I'll link to the bloggers who are actively fact-checking and I'll try to highlight some of the best and best-documented posts.

How to Play at Home

Of course, you don't need to be a Googling monkey to tell who's fibbing -- at least so says former FBI profiler Jack Trimarco, in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer.

Apparently, if someone repeats the question back to you, they're stalling for time and maybe lying, he says. Also, watch for lowering the volume of the voice. Trimarco says adults often exhibit childish behavior under stress.

Unfortunately, we're operating at a disadvantage here.

"The best time to catch someone in a lie is the first time they tell it," Trimarco says. "Politicians want to appeal to the largest voting base, and so sometimes they -- what we now call -- spin, which is really just a rationalization of a lie."

The Spin Machine

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post has written extensively about the pre-debate spin and post-debate spin; today he writes about predictive spin.

"[S]ince we know (see yesterday's column) that the media verdict is as important as what millions of Americans think they see on the screen -- that is, until we tell them what they really saw -- there's naturally lots of interest in what how the Fourth Estate will handle the aftermath. Substance or suntans? Fact-checking or theater criticism?"

David Folkenflik writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Can we put any stock in the instant analyses thrown at us after tonight's nationally televised presidential debate?

"On important, late-night news events -- such as the State of the Union address and presidential debates -- conventional wisdom is minted by the political press corps in a matter of seconds and minutes, not days or weeks. It is, by its nature, instinctive and rushed. It is very often conflicting. Sometimes, it's just flat-out wrong."

Anne Kornblut and Patrick Healy write in the Boston Globe: "The two campaigns have poured extraordinary resources into preparing for the debate, flying scores of staff members to Florida to set up 'spin alley,' the room where surrogates attack the other side and declare victory after the debate. The Bush campaign issued a briefing book on Kerry's positions, while the Kerry campaign issued its 'prebuttal' for the debate."

Alan Wirzbicki writes in the Boston Globe: "In the latest bid to satisfy the public's seemingly insatiable demand for campaign polls, CBS News is unveiling a real-time, Internet-based survey of 200 undecided voters watching tonight's presidential debate. . . .

"As George W. Bush and John F. Kerry face off, bar charts on the CBS website will record immediate reaction to the candidates, producing a bouncing thermometer graph much like the volume meter on a home stereo system."

Here's former presidential guru and master of conventional wisdom David Gergen on CNN yesterday: "I think that it's likely Senator Kerry will probably be -- will be judged after the debate is over as ahead on points on substance and that President Bush will be ahead on points on style.

"And if that's the case, it may be seen as draw. And a draw is a victory for George W. Bush."

More Debate Coverage

Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry will meet here Thursday night for a high-stakes debate that will produce their first direct confrontation over the war in Iraq and that strategists say will be Kerry's best opportunity to shake up a contest that is tilting in Bush's direction."

James Bennet writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's advisers have identified what they think is a major vulnerability in Mr. Kerry's arguments: The Democrat, they say, is far more interested in talking about plans to withdraw American troops than in describing how he would stabilize Iraq and bring democracy to the region. They have hinted that Mr. Bush will make that a key point. One senior Bush official called Mr. Kerry's arguments 'a slow version of cut and run.'

"Mr. Kerry has seized on Mr. Bush's admission of a single 'miscalculation' in the post-invasion phase in Iraq, and regularly ticks off other miscalculations that he argues have cost lives and money. His advisers have discussed how long a list Mr. Kerry should present in the debate."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "What really divides Bush and Kerry in the foreign policy arena is not the question of goals, but means -- not what they plan to achieve, but how they plan to achieve it. And that comes from the very different ways in which they view the world, a contrast that will underlie their answers in tonight's first presidential debate of 2004, which deals with foreign policy."

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune: "The rivals have a rich opportunity to clarify their diverging views on the prosecution of a war, which for the first time in a generation is interwoven with a race for the White House."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "America will get its first prime-time debate on the war in Iraq tonight if the presidential candidates can untangle themselves from the bluster of their campaign rhetoric and the rigidity of the debate format."

ABC News's Evening Newscast Wrap reports that ABC's Terry Moran says the president and his campaign team arrived in Miami "oozing confidence, even cockiness. . . . It's clear they think they can finish off Senator Kerry here tomorrow night," Moran said. Bush aides tell Moran that Bush has three goals for the debate: "Project confidence and conviction about his policies, especially in Iraq; lay out a clear plan for victory there and against Al Qaeda; and hammer John Kerry for what the Bush campaign claims is his 'weakness and waffling' on national-security issues."

Guy Dinmore writes in the Financial Times: "When President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry face off tonight in their first election debate, the rest of the world will see a reflection of unrivalled military might and financial muscle that nonetheless is losing influence, friends and global respect. This tension between power and legitimacy emerged as a dominant theme among world leaders meeting at the United Nations last week. It is likely to set the parameters for the one-hour debate in Florida on US foreign policy and security. . . .

"How the US should wield authority lies at the heart of their foreign policy differences."

Those Nutty Rules

Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times reprises the ground rules. You can read all 32 pages right here.

Debate Questions Everywhere

There's no saying for sure what PBS's Jim Lehrer will ask tonight, but he's certainly been getting a lot of advice.

Just this morning, the New York Times op-ed page features questions for Kerry from Ruth Wedgwood, Victor Davis Hanson and William Kristol, who asks: "You have said that we cannot cut and run from Iraq and that we could 'realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.' But if you now consider the war to have been a mistake, how could you, as president, 'ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake'?"

The accompanying questions for Bush are from Madeleine K. Albright, Richard A. Clarke and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who asks: "Since you obviously did not anticipate the troubles in Iraq, what do you plan to do to the incompetent advisers who misled you and are responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 American G.I.'s and 20,000 Iraqi civilians? Or do you not see an accountability problem? President John F. Kennedy fired the people who led him into the Bay of Pigs. Why do you not do likewise?"

Also today, proposed questions from Sidney Zion in the New York Daily News, and readers of Salon.com, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

For many, many more proposed debate questions from around the Web, see the huge list from NiemanWatchdog.org, a journalism Web site that I also work for. Earlier this week, we picked our own 10 best list of questions.

New National Guard Records

Michael Dobbs writes in The Washington Post: "More than seven months after the White House announced that Bush's records had been 'fully released,' files continue to trickle out almost weekly from the Pentagon and elsewhere. Some of the newly released records contradict earlier claims by the Bush camp, such as his assertion in a 1999 campaign autobiography that he gave up flying 'because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter.'"

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House said seven months ago that it had released all the records on President Bush's stateside military service during the Vietnam War, yet new records are still dribbling out as Election Day approaches.

"The White House on Wednesday night produced a November 1974 document bearing Bush's signature from Cambridge, Mass., where he was attending Harvard Business School, saying he had decided not to continue as a member of the military reserve."

Here's a picture of that letter.

"Earlier Wednesday, the White House said Bush never was disciplined while serving in the Texas Air National Guard, never failed a physical and never asked his father or family friends for help to get him into the Guard."

Outsourcing Torture?

Dana Priest and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is supporting a provision in the House leadership's intelligence reform bill that would allow U.S. authorities to deport certain foreigners to countries where they are likely to be tortured or abused, an action prohibited by the international laws against torture the United States signed 20 years ago."

Blogger Obsidian Wings started a blogger rampage on the issue yesterday.

The Sleeper Issue

Joan Biskupic writes in USA Today: "This election's potential impact on the Supreme Court has seemed to be an afterthought, as Bush and Democrat John Kerry have battled over the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy.

"But the stakes for the court and the law are even higher now than they were in 2000. The prospect of a change on the court is greater -- eight of the justices are now at least 65 -- and the replacement of even one justice could affect the law on issues such as abortion rights, affirmative action and religion's role in government."

Biskupic also examines some potential nominees

Who Wrote Allawi's Speech?

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that "details have emerged showing the U.S. government and a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign had been heavily involved in drafting the speech given to Congress last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi."

This in an article about how "The Bush administration, battling negative perceptions of the Iraq war, is sending Iraqi Americans to deliver what the Pentagon calls 'good news' about Iraq to U.S. military bases, and has curtailed distribution of reports showing increasing violence in that country."

Bush on Fox

Here's the transcript of part three of the Bush sit-down with Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly asked what Bush was thinking when he sat in a Florida classroom for several minutes after being told America was under attack, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was thinking America was under attack, I was collecting my thoughts, and I wasn't about to panic a bunch of kids. And the program was winding down, I waited for the end of the program, I excused myself and I went to action. And what the American people will judge me on is whether or not I handled that crisis, in a way that lets them know that, that I'll lead in this war on terror, that's what they need to look at, and I think they are looking at it that way."

Bushes on 'Dr. Phil'

Daytime television host "Dr. Phil" yesterday broadcast an interview he did weeks ago with the president and the first lady, in which they talked about themselves as parents and their home life.

There are transcript excerpts available here and here.

The Bushes spoke at length about the importance of love and modeling good behavior.

The president said it was "awfully difficult" for parents to urge their children not to drink and drive if they do it themselves.

"The parents have got to understand that when they tell their child something they have to be willing to live it in order for the child to be able to absorb the truth of what the parent is trying to say," Bush said.

As the Associated Press noted: "Days before the 2000 presidential election, Bush was caught withholding information about a drunk driving arrest in Maine dating to 1976. He said at the time he had not been specific about the incident earlier because he wanted to keep the information from his twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna. . . .

"Bush, now 58, gave up alcohol at 40 after concluding he was drinking too much."

And of course he doesn't drive anymore, either.

But what I don't understand is how, in an interview about parenting, Dr. Phil didn't get around to asking the Bushes if they aren't concerned that the twins may be drinking too much.

Incidentally, here's a picture of protesters picketing outside a Boston bar during a campaign visit by the twins yesterday.


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