After a while in this job you know what stories are going to produce controversy and mail. Thus it was with mixed feelings that I read the story about presidential campaign advertising by Post staff writers Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei on the front page May 31. It was headlined, "From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity; Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks." I was drawn to it because the headline seemed so bold, yet I knew it would make work for me from what I assumed would be angry supporters of the president.
There were indeed complaints from some who said they believed the article, itself, was misleading and biased, that the scholars quoted were "obviously hand-picked by the authors," and that "it is not a newspaper's job to defend a political candidate against another candidate's ads," as one put it.
I was troubled by a couple of things. One was the use of the word "unprecedented" in the headline. This is a word that ought to be put in a journalistic lockbox. It is almost always confusing and an overstatement. The article reports that scholars and political strategists say "the volume of negative charges [by the Bush campaign] is unprecedented -- both in speeches and in advertising." But one of the scholars quoted also points out that the distortions themselves are no worse than those "since the beginning of time." So the headline can cause confusion between the sheer amount of negativity and the content of the charges.
Nevertheless, I thought this was a powerful, carefully reported story and -- given the blizzard of head-spinning campaign claims one is exposed to daily -- a service to readers. I've looked over the challenges made by Bush campaign officials, but I think The Post's story holds up well. It is true, as those officials point out, that the president was hit by large numbers of negative ads, many by private groups, during the Democratic primary season. But the story focuses, properly in my view, on the ads since then and personally vouched for by Bush, Kerry and their campaigns.
Furthermore, The Post has done a lot of what it calls "accountability" reporting on both candidates and campaigns, including a running series of articles that assessed the factual basis of much of the major advertising and several front-page stories (mostly by VandeHei) critiquing Kerry's positions and statements.
Also among the letters prompted by this story were some from readers who felt that The Post, in perhaps striving for balance by also reporting details of Kerry's "own misleading statements and exaggerations" in the same article, had diminished the impact of the story, which was focused on the Bush campaign. At issue for these readers, clearly not Bush supporters, is whether some standard journalistic conventions are obscuring what is happening.
Here is what some of them said on this point.
"Monday's story was tough. I applaud it. And it did say the Bush campaign charges are 'wrong' or 'highly misleading' or take 'liberties' with the truth. But 'wrong' does not suggest what is at work in these ads, which is knowing, deliberate distortion sanctioned -- by voice, in each ad -- by the president."
Another said: "One of the reasons the administration has been able, for example, to convince the American public of a causal link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, while maintaining that they did not lie, has been the press's tendency to try and always present two sides to each issue, regardless of how false one of the two points of view is. The press often adopts a credulous 'he said, she said' approach rather than investigating the truth of assertions and placing them in context when they present them in print.
"This is not fairness," this reader continued, "but rather an abdication of the responsibility to make an honest assessment of the facts. Journalism should strive to be unbiased, but it should not simply parrot what it hears, and it should not be afraid to delineate between what it believes to be the truth and what it is told. The tendency to do this has led to the expectation among both readers and journalists that articles critical of one side or another will always have statements that provide balance. While this is generally good, if the truth makes one side look particularly bad it can lead to the journalist putting his thumb on the lightweight side of the scale in order to avoid the accusation that he or she is biased."
I don't feel as though The Post put its thumb on the scale in this case. Reporting on Kerry's "misleading statements and exaggerations" was proper in a story whose main focus was on Bush's campaign advertisements. Yet the readers quoted above make interesting points.
We have just experienced a situation in which almost everything we were told about the war in Iraq has turned out, thus far, not to be the case. It is the most glaring and important demonstration in my aging memory of the need for the press to challenge claims, on all sides, before the fact; especially before wars and before elections. Ideally, it will be done in a way that consumers of news can absorb and accept. But it's got to be done.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.