Back in August, we noted that the media, fresh off a round of public mea culpas about being taken in by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq war, was still giving the Bush folks un-skeptical, credulous coverage that enabled their continued misrepresentations. But, like Charlie Brown falling for Lucy's football con year after year, the media just keeps falling for the lies from Bush, Cheney & Co. They seem to know they shouldn't, but they can't help themselves -- and so they can't help their readers and viewers, either.
Back in August, we noted that the media, fresh off a round of public mea culpas about being taken in by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq war, was still giving the Bush folks un-skeptical, credulous coverage that enabled their continued misrepresentations:
A plea to our friends in the media: Please, stop writing about your past failure to challenge the Bush camp on their lies, and start challenging them on their current lies. We don't want to read another round of apologies in a year.
As Bush himself has said, “There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again.”
But, like Charlie Brown falling for Lucy's football con year after year, the media just keeps falling for the lies from Bush, Cheney & Co. They seem to know they shouldn't, but they can't help themselves -- and so they can't help their readers and viewers, either.
The morning after emphatically stating that Dick Cheney got the better of John Edwards in their vice presidential debate, MSNBC's Chris Matthews explained that he had been “snookered” by Cheney the night before: “Well, look, I've watched Cheney for about 25 years now, and I think I got snookered again last night by the guy. He has this very moderate manner ...”
Two other MSNBC personalities were likewise seduced by Cheney's lies. Andrea Mitchell swooned over Cheney's false claim that he hadn't met Edwards before the debate, saying Cheney “did awfully well” in “putting John Edwards in his place, saying, 'I have been presiding over the Senate, and I didn't meet you until tonight.' Talking about his [Edwards's] not having been on the job was pretty devastating.” Tim Russert was likewise taken in:
[W]hen he [Cheney] turned to John Edwards and basically said to him, you know what, you are a young man in too much of a hurry. I never met you before in my life until you walked on the stage tonight, it was basically saying to the American people, you may disagree with me, but I am steady and I am resolute, and I have a lot of experience, and you don't have to worry about the government if I am a heartbeat away.
Of course, it turns out Cheney was not telling the truth -- a huge surprise to anyone who has observed the Bush administration for the past four years. Cheney and Edwards had, in fact, met before, as photos and videos of the two men meeting and shaking hands at a prayer breakfast quickly established. And, CNN's Ed Henry noted later:
The vice president was only half right at best about his own attendance record. He's right that on most Tuesdays the vice president is in the Capitol, but he is not there as he suggested to preside over the Senate. Instead, he's at a Republican-senators-only luncheon, where they plot political strategy. He does not mostly preside over the chamber. Instead, he just has lunch with his Republican friends.
Moreover, as Washington Post In the Loop columnist Al Kamen wrote:“Cheney cast six tie-breaking votes and Edwards was there for each one.”
By the morning after the debate, Russert revealed that Cheney and Edwards had met at Russert's own Meet the Press studios -- and he even claimed to have been surprised during the debate that Edwards didn't call Cheney on the falsehood. Of course, Russert himself didn't note the lie in his post-debate comments.
So, for the second time, a plea to our friends in the media: before you quote Bush, Cheney, or their flacks -- and especially before you praise their statements -- take the five minutes to fact-check them. If you get seduced again, how will you respect yourself in the morning?
Bush White House dupes cable networks into 50 minutes of free air time
Salon's War Room '04 reported:
It looks like the White House pulled a fast one on the 24-hour news channels this morning as President Bush grabbed 50 minutes of free, uninterrupted TV airtime one month before Election Day. News outlets were told in advance Bush would give a substantive speech addressing key policy issues, which is why they agreed to carry it. (They're not in the habit of running stump speeches in their entirety.) Days ago, the speech was billed as an address on medical liability reform. Then on Monday, White House aides announced the speech would address the “war on terror” and the economy.
Instead, the address, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was nothing more than a raucous Bush pep rally as the president unleashed his most sustained and personal attacks on Sen. John Kerry to date, portraying him as an out of touch liberal who cannot be trusted to defend America, while Republican loyalists in the crowd booed and jeered each mention of Kerry's name.
The question is, why did all three news channels cover the attack speech for nearly an hour? In the past, they have occasionally cut away to both candidates' stump speeches for five or ten minutes, but certainly never for 50 minutes. When it became apparent that Bush's policy speech was not going to be as advertised, but was instead a tirade against Kerry, did that still constitute news? And the more pressing question for the cable outlets is: When are they going to give Kerry nearly an hour of uninterrupted time to ridicule and mock Bush's record?
Fact-checking the “fact checks”
After the first two debates thus far -- one presidential, one vice presidential -- many news outlets produced “fact checks” of the claims made during the debates; unfortunately, several of those “fact checks” were themselves lacking in accuracy and proportionality.
CNN's David Ensor, for example, fell for President Bush's claim that Kerry mistakenly left Poland off a list of countries supplied forces when the invasion of Iraq began. Ensor described Kerry's omission of Poland as an “error,” but it wasn't, as The Washington Post noted:
Bush also overstated the case when he corrected Kerry by saying that the senator forgot to mention that Poland supplied forces when the invasion began. Kerry said there were three countries that did -- Britain, Australia and the United States -- and Bush said, “actually he forgot Poland.”
Poland later supplied troops and commanded a zone in Iraq. But, except for a few commandos, Polish troops were not part of the original ground invasion. And though Bush said there are 30 countries in the coalition, he neglected to say that about a half-dozen have recently withdrawn their troops.
Ensor thus not only falsely accused Kerry of making an error, he let Bush off the hook for his mistake.
A common refrain during “fact checks” was that Kerry and Edwards overstated the cost of the Iraq war by putting the price tag at $200 billion. NBC, MSNBC, and ABC all took the Democratic duo to task, saying that only $120 billion has been spent thus far. But this is an absurd criticism; the best current estimates are that at least $200 billion will be spent on the war. And that's the way politicians, reporters, pundits, and people in general typically talk about government spending: the total projected amount, not the amount spent to date. In early January, people don't talk about the $3 billion spent on Defense so far that year, they talk about the roughly $300 billion that will be spent that year. When George W. Bush proposed a $1 trillion-plus tax cut in 2001, it was described as a $1 trillion-plus tax cut -- that is, it was described using the total projected cost.
Perhaps the best illustration of the absurdity of criticizing Kerry and Edwards for noting the war's $200 billion price tag came from blogger Jesse Taylor of Pandagon.net:
The “factchecks” on the $200 billion question don't make much sense to me.
We can't count the war as costing what it's going to cost because the money's been earmarked to be spent, but hasn't been spent yet.
By that standard, my car cost $622.
Kerry and Edwards, in referring to the total projected price tag for the Iraq war, are simply discussing government spending the way nearly everyone -- including the media -- always does. News organizations that claimed they were stretching the truth were themselves distorting reality.
NBC's Lisa Myers claimed John Kerry has changed his position on Iraq war spending; Myers noted that Kerry said during the first debate that the $200 billion the Iraq war costs could have been spent on health care and schools; she then suggested that was a flip-flop, saying, “A year ago, Kerry had a different position, arguing the U.S. should spend more in Iraq.” But those positions aren't “different” -- there's nothing inconsistent in saying the Iraq war was a mistake, and thus the money could have been better spent in other ways -- but that, with the war under way, we should spend “whatever it takes to win,” as Kerry said in 2003. Trying awfully hard to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper, she only demonstrated that she is in greater need of a fact check than Kerry.
In the same fact-check segment, Myers demonstrated that the easiest way to create the impression that someone is guilty of distortion is to distort their comments. Myers's selectively quoted Kerry's criticism of Bush not doing more to impose international sanctions on Iran, cutting off his quote so that it seemed he was saying the U.S. had not imposed sanctions. Myers then noted that “President Bush is right. President Clinton imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1996, and Mr. Bush renewed them.” But, had Myers shown her Kerry's complete comments, they would have seen how dishonest her critique was: Kerry went on to say that the US was the only country that had sanctioned Iran, and that “In order for the sanctions to be effective, we should have been working with the British, French and Germans and other countries. And that's the difference between the president and me.”
Incidentally, this isn't the first time Myers has selectively edited a Democrat's comments in order to make them look bad. As the Daily Howler's Bob Somerby detailed in 1998, Myers dishonestly and selectively spliced together different portions of an audio tape of Webster Hubbell to create the false impression that Hubbell was implicating then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in illegal over-billing while a partner in the Rose Law Firm.
How much longer will NBC allow Myers to selectively quote Democrats in order to make them look bad?
Perhaps the most bizarre “fact check” came in The New York Times, which took a look at Edwards's statement that “in the last four years, 1.6 million private sector jobs have been lost.” The Times wrote of Edwards' statement, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of payroll jobs has declined by about 900,000 since Mr. Bush took office. Mr. Edwards's higher number comes from isolating private-sector jobs, not taking into account increases in state, local and federal government jobs.” (Emphasis added.)
We'll let Bob Somerby take it from there:
Say what? According to Rosenbaum, Edwards' statement about private-sector jobs “comes from isolating private-sector jobs!” Only at the New York Times could you find such a risible statement. No, Rosenbaum doesn't say that Edwards' statement is false, but it takes a careful reader to see this.
Meanwhile, the scribe rushes to say that Mr. Cheney was just plain correct ... But there's an obvious problem in rushing to say that “Mr. Cheney was correct” in this exchange. In fact, Mr. Cheney made another statement in response to Edwards -- a statement which was blatantly false. ...
“The data he's using is old data,” Cheney said. “It doesn't include any of the gains that we've made in the last years.” But uh-oh! That statement by Cheney was blatantly false. Edwards' job-loss number is right up-to-date, as Rosenbaum himself makes quite clear.
So here's what happened in this exchange -- and here's how Rosenbaum handled it. First, Edwards made an accurate statement. In reply, Cheney made a blatantly inaccurate statement -- and he said something that was correct. Rosenbaum's approach? First, he fails to mention Cheney's misstatement -- wipes the misstatement right off the map. Then, he makes it sound like there's something wrong with Edwards' accurate claim -- after which he explicitly says that Cheney's job-statement “is correct.”
The Times wasn't alone: both The Washington Post and MSNBC's David Shuster quoted Edwards saying “1.6 million private sector jobs have been lost.” The Post followed Edwards' quote by claiming “The actual number is close to 900,000,” while Shuster offered a similar rebuttal: “The actual number is 900,000.” No, the “actual number” is 1.6 million. Edwards specifically said “private sector jobs,” it's simply false to say the “actual number” is 900,000. A different number -- the number of total jobs lost, including government jobs created -- is 900,000. Edwards was right. MSNBC and the Post were wrong.
No proportionality in media fact checks of candidate statements
These examples of the media stretching the truth in order to debunk a statement made by Kerry or Edwards may stem from the media's apparent belief that “balance” requires treating false claims and misstatements by all candidates equally -- even if the false claims greatly differ in severity.
As Media Matters for America recently noted:
In a September 30 Washington Post article ... reporters Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly ... examined claims by the candidates in areas of foreign policy, economic policy, and health policy, providing what are portrayed as comparable examples of misleading claims from both candidates. On close examination, however, the examples chosen by Kessler and Connolly were often not very similar. Of the three policy areas covered in the article, in only one did Kessler and Connolly offer an example of Senator John Kerry actually making an inaccurate statement (and a minor one at that), while President George W. Bush made several, including serious mischaracterizations.
This led Matthew Yglesias, writing for The American Prospect Online, to ask: “So why is the headline for the pre-debate article 'Both Bush and Kerry Have Set the Stage With Some Misleading Claims' instead of 'Bush Has Set the Stage With Some Misleading Claims?'”
Yglesias further critiqued the Post report: “Bush said Iraq had WMD. It didn't. Bush said Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda. It didn't. Kerry said the war has cost $200 billion when in fact $200 billion is merely the pricetag for paying for everything we're currently committed to doing. Meanwhile, every cost estimate the administration has ever put forward for the war has proven to be an underestimation.”
If John Kerry says in the second presidential debate that two plus two equals five, and George W. Bush says two plus two equals 127,000, we fear The Washington Post will tell us they're both equally guilty of fudging the numbers. Meanwhile, if Kerry correctly says two plus two equals four, The New York Times will ominously note that Kerry only came up with that number by adding two and two together.
The media week-in-review: Debates matter ... unless Kerry wins. We'll tell you who won ... unless it's Kerry.
Leading up to the first presidential debate, reporters and pundits talked about it being pivotal; a “defining night.” But a funny thing happened after Kerry, by nearly all accounts, turned in the superior performance: Many of the same pundits who had talked up the debate's importance started backpedaling rapidly, suggesting it really wasn't a big deal.
Media Matters for America detailed the rapid change several CNN anchors and analysts underwent.
Anchor Wolf Blitzer, for example, said before the debate that it would be a “pivotal night in this presidential campaign, perhaps a decisive moment,” calling it “A defining night. I think everybody agrees potentially. This certainly could be a defining night. Historians will be writing about this for many years to come.”
But after Kerry decisively beat Bush, Blitzer changed his tune. “So even if John Kerry decisively won the debate, we shouldn't jump to any conclusions,” Blitzer said, adding that the debate may have little effect on polls.
Analyst Jeff Greenfield said the debate would be “the most important night of John Kerry's presidential campaign,” adding that the debate “may be the pivotal point of the whole campaign. It actually is one of those events that we're not overhyping.”
But after the debate, Greenfield decided there was nothing to see here, move along: “Kerry actually did better. But that's a different question from asking did they sway voters.”
CNN anchor Miles O'Brien, before the debates began: "[T]he debates are now set. That obviously is going to be a pivotal moment in this campaign." And after the first debate: “Well, by now we've seen the numbers, the major post-debate polls indicating the winner was Senator John Kerry over President Bush, but not to sound flip -- or flop, for that matter -- so what?”
The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, meanwhile, suggested on his CNN talk program Reliable Sources that “this media verdict” that Kerry won the first debate might have something to do “with maybe reporters being closet liberals.”
Given that three polls conducted immediately after the debate, before viewers could be swayed by media spin, found that most people thought Kerry won -- by margins of 16 percent, 15 percent, and nine percent -- we wonder if Kurtz's comment might have something to do with him being a closet conservative?
Finally, Bill O'Reilly talked in detail before the first debate about his plans to announce the debate's winner on his radio show:
We will be down in Miami for that debate, giving you the best coverage. And I'm going to do it like a prizefight. I'm going to kind of come on the radio the day after the debate, and we're going to give you a numerical system -- who won the debate and then how they won. Is that fair?
All right, I'm going to be as objective as possible, because I don't have a dog in the hunt.
Mysteriously, after Kerry cleaned Bush's clock, O'Reilly's interest in telling his listeners who won decreased considerably:
I may surprise you, but I'm not going to tell you who won the debate because I really don't have any right to tell you that. You should make up your own mind on that, and if you didn't see it, you can call me at 1-877-9-NO-SPIN. I'll give you my opinion on various aspects of the debate, but I'm not going to tell you who won it. I mean, I think that's a little haughty. It's a little haughty to do that.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.