Are the media's truth-squadding troops ganging up on George W. Bush? And if so, does he deserve it?
In articles, columns and one internal ABC News memo, some journalists have argued that the president has engaged in far more serious distortions than John Kerry has, and that media outlets should blow the whistle on these falsehoods.
"Your instinct is that if we say bad things about one side you have to say bad things about the other side," says Adam Nagourney, the New York Times's chief political reporter. "You want to give equal scrutiny to both sides, but I don't think you should impose a false equivalence that doesn't exist."
The Bush team, which issued a release slamming a recent Nagourney story, is pushing back. "The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country," says spokesman Steve Schmidt.
At issue is how far reporters should go in analyzing the candidates' attacks and ads, especially if one side is using a howitzer and the other a popgun. Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, fueled the debate with a memo that leaked to the Drudge Report.
"Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win," Halperin wrote. While both sides should be held accountable, "that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that." Complaints by the Bush camp, Halperin said, are "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."
While some critics have mischaracterized the memo by Halperin -- one of the few journalists who sometimes criticize a leftward tilt in the press -- others see it as a revealing snapshot.
National Review Editor Rich Lowry says the memo "reflected a mindset in a lot of newsrooms that Bush's campaign is uniquely dishonest and it's the role of the media, in the simplest and crudest terms, to keep him from getting reelected -- because if he is, it would be a triumph of dishonesty." Critiquing the candidates' arguments, he says, involve "inherently tough and subjective judgments."
The campaigns bombard reporters with statistics, cite studies by ideologically compatible professors or groups and validations by sympathetic news outlets -- with phrases sometimes taken out of context. Kerry often cites a former Clinton administration official, while Bush prefers the American Enterprise Institute, which has employed Dick and Lynne Cheney.
The key question is one of magnitude. Kerry had been saying the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion; that is the current estimate, but the price tag so far is $120 billion. (Kerry adjusted his answer in the final debate.) Bush keeps charging that Kerry is pushing a "government-run" health care plan, even though nearly all analysts and journalists have concluded that it builds on the existing system of private insurance. That would seem a more fundamental misrepresentation. (Bush repeated the charge in the Arizona debate, and when Kerry cited network reports challenging the claim, the president questioned whether "it's credible to quote leading news organizations.")
Charges are often technically true but still misleading. One Bush ad said Kerry supported a 50-cent gas tax under which "the average family would pay $657 more a year." Kerry briefly expressed support for such a tax in 1994 but changed his mind and never introduced or voted for such a bill.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was the lead writer on a May 31 story (to which this reporter made a minor contribution) that recited a litany of Bush charges, saying they "were all tough, serious -- and wrong, or at least highly misleading."
The Oct. 8 Times piece by Nagourney and Richard Stevenson attributed to "several analysts" the idea that "Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry's positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy."
Says Nagourney: "People who work for the larger papers and networks are more able to withstand attacks and have an added obligation to be out front on this."
Paul Krugman, the liberal Times columnist, writes that while Kerry might use "loose language," Bush's statements are "fundamentally dishonest. . . . Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry's choice of words are betraying their readers."
The issues and themes emphasized by daily reporting also have a huge impact on how the candidates are perceived. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs says that Bush's coverage on the network nightly newscasts fell from 41 percent positive in June, July and August to 29 percent positive last month. The drop was more dramatic for Kerry, whose coverage plummeted from 62 percent to 38 percent positive.
A typical comment: Kerry "muddled his message and failed to make this race more about Bush than himself," said ABC's Dean Reynolds.
Was Kerry doing so much worse during this period? Or did journalists decide to go after him -- and, even more so, the president?
On Fox's "Special Report," the comments made about Kerry over the summer were an eye-opening 5 to 1 negative. In September Kerry fared only slightly better, moving from 17 percent to 21 percent positive. Is that because Fox leans Republican -- or provides a balance to the more pro-Kerry networks?
Since Oct. 1, the conservative Washington Times has run these front-page headlines, seven of them leading the paper: "Bush rips Iraq flip-flops" (in the first debate); "Bush derides Kerry stance on defense"; "Bush slams Kerry's plan to 'retreat' "; "Bush defends the war as 'just' "; "Pundits see Bush win in 2nd debate"; "Buoyed Bush goes on offensive in heartland"; "Injured, angry, determined, Swiftees united to fight Kerry"; "Bush hits Kerry's view on terror"; "Bush seeks to paint a liberal"; "Energized Bush rips Kerry" (in the third debate). The stories contained true information, but the emphasis has been decidedly one-sided.
Whatever their orientation, journalists are the last line of defense against public deception. If they fail to challenge distortions by politicians, they might as well join the stenography pool.
Ron Brownstein went to the first presidential debate in Florida, which convinced him to cover the next two from Washington.
"For me it's a slam-dunk issue: Dateline or deadline?" says the Los Angeles Times correspondent. "In Miami I was sitting in a crowded, loud room where I had so little space I couldn't keep a legal pad next to the computer to take notes. I was far from a TV. I could not print out transcripts." And because the official feed didn't include the network cutaway shots of an unhappy George Bush, Brownstein "couldn't get a good sense" of what Americans were seeing.
Others have also concluded that flying across the country to watch the event on TV is a waste of time. "Debates are television events," says Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. "I don't see any reason to watch it in a filing center." Besides, he says, the postgame spin room "has become this incredible joke" in which people "degrade each other."
But Washington Post reporter Dan Balz says that "we ought to be on the scene. You can actually get a decent amount of reporting done because there's a concentration of people there."