The Campaign '04 information war is fast, deep, and fraught with lies. The press must rethink its coverage, or drown in a toxic tidal wave
Political spin is as old as politics, and it is tempting to view the Campaign ’04 version as nothing more than an update of the same old, same old. Ask a dozen reporters about this campaign season and you’ll hear a dozen variations on recurrent themes: the campaigns are dishonest, the attacks and counterattacks fly nonstop, the wash of information dumped on the press is bewildering. Such assessments, though, miss a crucial new development: President Bush, Senator Kerry, and their operatives are deliberately using a cynical combination of calculated deception, speed, and volume to exploit the press’s reluctance to call a lie a lie. Rather than sorting through the facts and pointing out what is true and what is not — something good reporters are qualified to do — we too often treat the truth as something the reader or viewer should be able to discern from competing bits of spin. In doing so, we encourage the candidates to mislead the public. And when the “facts” are coming from every conceivable angle and around the clock, it makes it even more unlikely that the press will sort through it all and render a judgment. Bush has taken advantage of this like no other president before him (this is how he governs, not just how he campaigns) and Kerry is learning quickly how to play the game. The rules of engagement on the campaign trail have changed, and the press must change the way it covers the race or risk drowning — along with the voters — under a toxic tsunami.
Jim VandeHei of The Washington Post recently did something political reporters almost never do: he authoritatively debunked a misleading statement by a political operative in the same news cycle that the statement was made. In a May 13 front-page article about a speech by John Kerry, in which the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee attacked President Bush’s Iraq policies in light of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, VandeHei included a response from Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. “Racicot told reporters Wednesday that Kerry is relentlessly ‘playing politics’ and exploiting tragedy for political gain,” he wrote. “Racicot, for instance, told reporters that Kerry suggested that 150,000 or so U.S. troops are ‘somehow universally responsible’ for the misdeeds of a small number of American soldiers and contractors. Racicot made several variations of this charge. But Kerry never said this, or anything like it” [emphasis added]. VandeHei went on to explain exactly how the campaign chairman had tried to mislead reporters.
Racicot’s deception is typical for this campaign season. What stands out is VandeHei’s willingness to take it apart, especially compared to other reporters’ limp coverage of the comment. USA TODAY, for example, simply repeated Racicot’s baseless charge. The New York Times suggested that Kerry’s comments, which it quoted in context, had “set off Mr. Racicot.”
“I cover Kerry, so I know what Kerry is saying,” VandeHei says. “And I knew that Racicot was leaving out an important part of the quote that totally undercut what he was saying.” But VandeHei also acknowledged the dilemma reporters face. “The question is how, as an objective journalist, can you call a lie a lie?” he says. “I feel pretty passionate about this. If the facts show someone saying something that is a lie, we should say it’s a lie.”
But it almost never happens. The traditional rules of fairness and objectivity don’t allow it. Brooks Jackson, the veteran political reporter who runs FactCheck.org, a Web site that verifies the accuracy of advertisements and major statements by the candidates, says, “It’s really going a step beyond traditional he-said/she-said ‘objective’ journalism to characterize any public official’s statement as being either true or false, or misleading, or over the line, or not the whole story. Where I grew up, in the AP, if somebody told a big whopper, you reported what the whopper was and then you reported a few sentences of facts with sources that would lead any breathing human being to conclude it was a whopper, but you never said it was a whopper.” Yet such implicit framing simply drops news consumers into a maze of competing claims — often with very little connection to the truth — with no guidance about how to find their way out. This sort of coverage gives politicians an incentive to be dishonest or misleading, because they are fairly certain that they can get away with it. As Ryan Lizza, who is covering the campaign for The New Republic, put it, “Both sides exploit that sort of weakness of journalism — journalists’ instinct not to want to take sides, even when it’s something they can judge for themselves.”
Lately there have been glimmers of realization that something needs to change. The Washington Post, in particular, has shown some willingness to take on the candidates’ misleading claims as they crop up (VandeHei says his editors encourage it), and both the Post and The New York Times have run the occasional piece devoted to how dishonest the candidates are being. But more often than not, campaign lies sail into the public’s consciousness unchallenged by the press.
BRIGHT SHINING LIES
Deception doesn’t always come through the front door. This campaign season reporters confront a brand of spin that tiptoes to the edge of out-and-out lying without making obviously false claims. Bush’s presidency has been historic in this regard, borrowing some of the most sophisticated and insidious tactics from the world of corporate public relations and making them part of the day-to-day process of governing. Rather than simply lying, this White House uses carefully crafted language to create a misleading impression or make claims that are technically accurate but designed to produce inaccurate conclusions. The idea is to get the administration’s version of reality into news reports and the minds of voters without contradiction. Bush’s standard stump speech, for example, is a masterpiece of misleading rhetoric. At a fundraiser in Denver on June 1 the president told the crowd, “When we passed the child credit to help families, my opponent voted against it. When we increased the child credit to help families, he voted against it. When we reduced the marriage penalty, he voted against it. When we created a lower 10 percent rate for working families, he voted against it. When we reduced the tax rate on dividends that helps a lot of America’s seniors, he voted ‘no.’ When we passed tax relief to help small businesses, he voted ‘no.’” The casual listener would assume that the president was referring to six separate votes by Kerry against each of those programs individually. But all of the politically popular items the president cites were contained in his two major tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003, which Kerry opposed.
The president then rolled into another disingenuous attack. “I think we see a pattern here,” he told the crowd. “It’s a lot easier to get a ‘yes’ vote out of him as a United States senator when it comes to raising taxes. You make sure your friends and neighbors understand that as a United States senator, he voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people.” However, only a fraction of those 350 votes — a number the Bush campaign has been citing since March — are votes to increase taxes directly. Rather, the number is padded with votes on various tax matters spanning Kerry’s twenty years in the Senate: votes against decreasing taxes, votes to trim proposed tax cuts, votes against repealing tax hikes that were already enacted, and votes in favor of tax cuts that were smaller than what Republicans had proposed. Confused? That’s the idea.
Piling such misleading numbers on top of deceptive rhetoric produces a knot of spin that is difficult to untangle — but easy to quote for a punchy sound bite. Bush’s “350 votes” claim made its way into a couple of hundred print and television reports in March, April, and May. Not all of these reports simply repeated the spin, of course. But a poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey conducted in April and early May found that 56 percent of adults in battleground states thought it was “probably” or “definitely” true that Kerry had voted for higher taxes 350 times.
A second strategy — and one targeted even more directly at the news media — is to produce statistics that are technically true but thoroughly misleading. Again, Bush has elevated this tactic to high art. Since taking office, he has bombarded reporters with tendentious facts that purport to represent the average benefits of his tax cuts. For instance, the White House produced a fact sheet on April 15 (tax day) touting a series of such “averages,” including one that claims that “109 million American taxpayers will see their taxes decline by an average of $1,544.” The number is apparently tabulated by dividing the total reduction in taxes by the number of filers who got a tax cut, but it exaggerates the benefits most Americans received because of the very large tax cuts for those at the very top of the income brackets. According to an Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center analysis, when the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are fully phased in, the majority of filers will get less than half of Bush’s “average.” Despite the fact that reporters have seen four years of such carefully cooked “facts,” Bush’s “average” made it into a number of print and television reports that day. CBS MarketWatch ran with Bush’s misleading claim, then added, for balance, that “Democrats contend the first figure is skewed by big tax breaks at the top end.” The Democrats, in this case, are right — but the he said/she said framing does nothing to clarify the issue for the public. Other coverage was even worse. The Associated Press put out an article quoting the fact sheet without any sort of contradiction. And Suzanne Malveaux informed viewers on CNN, “Today administration officials are encouraging people and essentially telling them the message here is that 109 million Americans now get an average tax break of more than $1,500.”
If Bush is the master, Kerry is proving to be an adept pupil. In April his campaign launched a “middle-class misery index” to paint a dark picture of the economy under Bush. The traditional “misery index” — the sum of the unemployment rate plus the rate of inflation — suggests that the Bush administration has done better on these indicators than the post-World War II average. So instead, the Kerry campaign cherry-picked a few statistics to make Bush look bad: the costs of health care, gasoline, and public university tuition; median pre-tax income (which conveniently omits the benefits of the Bush tax cuts); the number of jobs in the private sector (rather than the total number of jobs); and rates of bankruptcy and homeownership (the last of which is actually positive for Bush, and was apparently included for a whiff of balance). The Kerry campaign then added these up and concluded that Bush has the “worst record of any president” since 1976. Of course, it would be nearly as easy for the Bush team to pull together its own index, perhaps focusing only on the last six months, to make its record look much better.
Yet credulous reporters ran with the bogus index. The Boston Globe led a story with a mention of Kerry’s invented index, completely failing to mention the actual index and what it would show; the Los Angeles Times wrote an entire story devoted to Kerry’s sketchy statistics, noting only that Kerry was “invoking the phrase” “misery index” while failing to mention what the traditional index showed.
At 7:40 a.m. on May 25, the Bush-Cheney team sent an e-mail to reporters announcing a conference call at 11 to preview a new television advertisement. At 9:44, the Kerry campaign replied with an e-mail announcing its own conference call at 10:30 to respond to what it anticipated the ad would contain. And at 10:42, the Democratic National Committee sent out an e-mail with a statement from Terry McAuliffe criticizing the ad that hadn’t yet been previewed.
Such absurd (but typical) games of one-upsmanship actually began in 2000, when the Bush and Gore campaigns began to push the accelerator on preemptive and real-time spin. Before the first presidential debate that year, for example, Gore’s campaign distributed an enormous “prebuttal” to claims it anticipated Bush would make. Then, during the debate, the candidates’ rapid-response teams published real-time rebuttals on their Web sites, ensuring that their side of a story would be available to any reporter on a tight deadline. In 2004, however, both sides ramped up such tactics from the outset of the general election campaign. The campaigns monitor each other — and the press — around the clock. Two staff members in Kerry’s camp track media coverage overnight with the help of volunteers. The Bush campaign gets its start around 4:30 a.m. each day, employing a bank of TiVo digital video recorders to sift through television coverage. No charge goes unanswered, no attack uncountered. As The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza puts it, “It starts when you wake up; you have these e-mails about the latest ads that are coming out, or latest silly thing the other campaign said the night before, e-mails about conference calls to discuss these things. And it’s just accusation, response, accusation, response all day long until you go to bed.”
But dueling e-mails are only one example of how Bush and Kerry have engaged in relentless back-and-forth exchanges at a pace that outstrips many journalists’ ability to keep up. The candidates have also attacked and counter-attacked in public with unrivaled speed, to say nothing of a loose affinity for the truth. For example, consider the Bush campaign’s treatment of an April 20 Kerry speech about environmental issues. In the speech, Kerry discussed his support for oil and gas drilling in “those locations where they’re already permitting” exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Kerry’s wording was vague, but his record is not. The Massachusetts senator has consistently voted against proposals to allow drilling substantially closer to Florida’s coast than the current limit. But a student journalist from the University of Florida’s Independent Florida Alligator characterized Kerry’s statement as indicating that “he would be in favor of drilling off the coast of Florida” — the only reporter of those present who did so. The next day, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida touted the Alligator article to reporters, as did the Bush-Cheney campaign. Kerry and his aides quickly denied the report in interviews with journalists, a press release, and a post on his campaign Weblog, and the Alligator soon issued a correction, blaming Kerry’s vague phrasing.
Still, the Bush campaign did its best to keep the controversy alive, publishing a press release online stating flatly that “Kerry supports offshore drilling in Florida,” which played on the ambiguity of the word “offshore” to suggest that Kerry might be changing his position. Kerry’s campaign then attacked the false claim on one of its Weblogs, prompting the Bush campaign to deny that it was wrong on its own Weblog. The Bush campaign also continued to suggest that Kerry supported offshore drilling in interviews with reporters. Finally, Bush gave a speech in Florida on April 23 on the environment in which he said, “As you can see, there is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida.”
The press made it easy for the president. The AP, for example, first reported Jeb’s attack on Kerry, citing the Alligator article, then reported that the Kerry campaign said Jeb was wrong. Readers were left to find their own way out of the thicket. The Washington Post provided a bit more context, quoting Kerry’s original statement, but still treated the matter as a he said/she said affair. Without an understanding of Kerry’s history of opposing such drilling, voters could easily conclude that it was an open question as to whether Kerry would allow drilling closer to the coastline. Yet for all the sound and fury, this was nothing more than a phony controversy manufactured by political operatives and amplified by reporters caught up in the speed of the charges and counter-charges.
ADDING INTERNET TO INJURY
Beyond the ease with which the candidates dissemble and skate blithely on to the next stump, the true innovation in this campaign is the amount of digital information that reporters now have thrown at them. In 2000 Gore and Bush discovered that e-mail messages were one of the most effective ways of getting their side of things to reporters, and Dick Polman, a veteran political reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer , described the volume of communications from the campaigns this year as having gone up “five or six notches from 2000.” While this easy access to information can be a boon to the sharpest and most independent-thinking reporters, an honest assessment of the deluge reveals a serious downside.
During the week of May 24, in addition to the president’s speeches and personal appearances, the Bush campaign put out twenty-five electronic press releases. Not to be outdone, the Kerry campaign produced twenty of its own, as well as six entries on its “D-Bunker” Weblog. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee posted twenty-three pieces of information targeted at reporters on its Web site, including news releases, research briefings, and entries on its own “Flog” (short for “fact log”) Weblog. The DNC was only slightly less prolific, pumping out a dozen press releases, along with daily “Bush day in history” quotations and entries on its “Kicking Ass” Weblog.
The candidates and parties have also discovered how to harness the power of the Web to help reporters write the stories the campaigns want written. The use of the Internet in politics by former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont was well covered during the Democratic primary, but the unwritten story of the Web so far has been its transformation into a p.r. clearinghouse. Bush’s Web site takes this to the extreme. It features a “Kerry Media Center” that includes virtually everything about the Massachusetts senator except his home phone number: press releases attacking him, digital recordings of conference calls with prominent Republicans criticizing him, and a helpful daily quote from a campaign spokesperson blasting him on a specific issue. Reporters searching for one side of their stories need look no further.
Aside from providing their version of the facts directly to reporters, campaign Web sites have provided another, subtler way to spin: gimmicks. For example, the DNC has an entire Web site at GrandOldPetroleum.com devoted to Bush’s record on energy issues. It helpfully calculates “Bush’s Summer Tax,” suggesting that somehow Bush has intentionally raised gasoline prices and/or gasoline taxes. It also repeatedly suggests that gas prices are at their highest level ever, which is true in absolute dollars, but not when prices are adjusted for inflation, a far fairer way of making such determinations. Yet, partly thanks to such spin, the DNC/Kerry line on gas prices has taken on the appearance of fact, making its way into reports by the Associated Press, CBS, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . Or how about the RNC Web site’s “Kerry vs. Kerry” animated boxing match, narrated by Don King, which has Kerry boxing against himself. In it, King introduces Kerry as having cast “350 votes for higher taxes.” The game has been covered by about two dozen television and print outlets, helping to reinforce the GOP’s attempt to paint Kerry as flip-flopper. The Boston Herald , for instance, proclaimed that it “KO’s the junior senator for being on both sides of every issue!”
The campaigns aren’t simply providing the press with their positions on the issues. Increasingly, this tidal wave seems to have had a more subtle and corrosive effect on coverage. Unless reporters are very aggressive or deeply informed, they are less in control of the reporter-source relationship, and more often simply conduits for spin. As Polman put it, “I think it’s made the reporting process a bit more antiseptic, in the sense that if you are not inclined to leave your desk, to travel, to get into a cab, whatever, then you don’t really have to. Basically, you sit there and put your hat outside and the rain will fall into it.” While journalists don’t usually like to own up to it, the digital deluge is clearly shaping coverage. In extreme cases, reporters have run with press releases virtually unchanged. More likely, though, is that it gets reporters thinking about a story or an issue in a particular way. As USA TODAY’s Jill Lawrence explains the quandary, you can’t just ignore it all, and yet you must. “You really have to keep up with it, and you also really, frankly, have to ignore a lot of it, otherwise you’d never get anything done. You’d never think for yourself; you’d never make any calls on your own; you’d just be caught in this endless loop of spin.” That, of course, is exactly what happens when reporters are overworked — and it is precisely what the campaigns are hoping for.
TOWARD NEW TRADITIONS
While candidates have changed the way they approach the media, the media have not changed the way in which they cover the candidates. The press is simply unprepared to deal effectively with the new speed, volume, and deceptiveness of this campaign. Individual journalists, faced with constant deadlines, rarely have the time or resources to check the truth of candidates’ claims, particularly in their first reports. The pseudo-objectivity created by “balancing” one half-truth against another does nothing to help voters make an informed choice. Instead, since candidates know they are much more likely to have their misleading spin repeated than to have it debunked, it is easier and more convenient to simply say whatever they think they can get away with and move on.
One solution to this has been the occasional bigger-picture articles and television segments that provide context or assess the truth of candidate advertisements. While such stories are useful, the problem is that, too often, they are outside of the news cycle and thus detached from the spin they mean to set straight. The first reporting on a particular claim by a candidate (or an advertisement) sets the tone for coverage to follow. If news reporters allow candidates to make dishonest statements over and over, one-off correctives are ineffective.
The New York Times’s coverage of the Bush campaign’s misleading assertion that Kerry “voted 350 times for higher taxes” illustrates the problem. On March 21, the paper ran a story about a Florida rally, in which the reporter, Richard Stevenson, swallowed Bush’s bait, turning the president’s carefully orchestrated tap dance — that Kerry had “voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people” — into what everyone but the lawyers would assume this to mean: that “Kerry had voted 350 times to raise taxes.” That set the tone for the paper’s coverage of the issue. In a March 30 story, the Times quoted Vice President Cheney repeating the “350 votes” talking point, then noted that the Kerry campaign claimed “that Mr. Cheney ‘cherry-picked a handful of votes.’” This was a classic he said/she said framing that surely left readers in the dark. An April 2 piece on a Bush ad that included the “350 votes” claim likewise framed it as he said/she said. On May 12, the paper finally ran a piece debunking the claim — on the op-ed page. Not until May 25 did the paper explain to readers in its news pages that the claim was misleading — a full two months after it had first written the Bush campaign’s spin into the record. This is not effectively critiquing dishonesty; it’s more like throwing readers a life preserver after the ship has already sunk.
For the media to hold the candidates accountable in today’s campaigns requires a fundamental rethinking of how we approach political coverage. The press will need to both slow down and speed up.
First, the slowdown. The notion of a scoop in daily campaign reporting is an anachronism. Stories are matched within hours, if not minutes, and the readers and viewers pay precious little attention to who broke what. In particular, wire service reporters — who provide much of the coverage of national politics that local newspaper readers see — place an emphasis on speed over fact-checking. If news organizations could take even a half-step back from the daily sprint, they could do a much better job not just of fact-checking, but of covering politics in general.
But we must speed up as well, and this requires manpower. One way to do that would be to create some newsroom mechanism to untangle the various strands of spin and deception coming from the campaigns. A small team of reporters back at headquarters could provide expertise and context to reporters in the field. Such a team could use the same information technology the candidates are exploiting to evaluate campaign claims in real time. They could also serve as experts on particular policy subjects, tracking a candidate’s proposals and how his campaign (or members of the other campaign) are misrepresenting those proposals. The profit demands of the news business make such ideas a tough sell to publishers and general managers, but if news outlets expect to provide meaningful coverage of the candidates, the old model of a lone reporter fighting the good fight simply will not work. Readers and viewers, lost in the storm of the information wars, will continue to tune out.
Many of the problems of political journalism are driven by the expectation that reporters must avoid making explicit judgments about the truth of what candidates say. Instead, reporters too often pass the misinformation on to readers, content to have “balanced” it with the “other side” of the story. If this were ever good enough, it isn’t anymore. Striving for fairness and balance does not mean we can’t adjudicate the facts. When the truth is knowable, the press should not hesitate to point it out. When it is not knowable, reporters need to include anything they can to help the reader understand a given issue or situation.
Journalists should treat candidate dishonesty like a shooting gallery: every time a candidate says something misleading, the press corps should report it and debunk it — within their stories, and in their own voices. No leaving it to “news analysis” pieces; no quoting “experts” telling viewers it’s false. To make informed decisions about the candidates these days, under these conditions, the public needs honest reporting, not only about the facts, but about how the candidates are misrepresenting them.
No one is better situated than journalists to serve as judges of factual accuracy. As The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza says, even if you don’t work at an opinion magazine, “judging what is truth and what isn’t should be part of your job. It’s really cynical for us to treat every piece of spin as a legitimate argument. Some stuff is just right and some stuff is just wrong.”
Correction: The above article originally quoted Jim VendeHei incorrectly, saying his editors "don't encourage" such reporting. The article has been changed to reflect his statement that his editors do encourage it.
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