AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2005

Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth   

As the election neared, news organizations aggressively fact-checked the assertions of the presidential contenders, in analysis pieces and sometimes in spot news stories. But this close scrutiny should have begun much earlier.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Lawrence Schumacher, a politics and government reporter at the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, is an avid viewer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." He's well aware of the satirical program's skewering of the media, along with politicians. Schumacher references pseudo-correspondent Rob Corddry, who once said his role is "to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other... Not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me."

Really? "Like, whoa," reacts Schumacher, "it's not my job to figure out what the truth is?"

Media critics of the less satirical variety had also grumbled about a lack of accountability journalism, the press not wanting to inject itself into the presidential race. So when First Lady Laura Bush paid St. Cloud a visit in August, Schumacher didn't want to become a media caricature. Armed with the URLs of some neutral Web sites and the names of organizations suggested by local professors, a transcript of Laura Bush's speech, the mere ability to google and an extra four to five hours before his final deadline, Schumacher tested some of the first lady's stats.

At the end of his story about the speech on women business owners and the economy was a "rhetoric and reality" section that explained where Laura Bush's numbers came from, issuing verdicts such as "correct," "incorrect" and the nuanced "depends."

When President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry were coming to the state, Schumacher's editors asked, " 'Hey, are you going to do that again?'" he recalls. And he did. Same thing for a congressional race debate.

But one guy in St. Cloud, blessed with some time before deadline, isn't going to have a huge impact on the fact-versus-fiction aspect of the campaign. "This doesn't amount to a whole lot if it's one newspaper doing it one time," Schumacher says. If it's not everybody doing it all the time, then the repetition from the campaigns is going to win.

Well, whether it was journalistic inspiration or a deluge of negative campaigning or the well-publicized work of factcheck.org, when it came to campaign coverage, 2004 was the Year of the Fact-Check. Or maybe just a few Months of the Fact-Check. Regardless, a number of media outlets took a distinct interest in putting statements made by Bush and Kerry, and their ad makers, to the test. The New York Times launched a feature named "Fact Check"; the Washington Post called its "For the Record"; ABC News had correspondent Jake Tapper chiming in with "just the facts"; many simply interviewed factcheck.org Director Brooks Jackson; a multitude weighed in with not only post-debate but pre-debate truth-squadding--since, after months of hearing the same-old speeches, the media could certainly guess what the candidates would say, and challenge them.

Washington Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank echoes the feeling among journalists that fact-checking was on the rise during this campaign. There's "more of the policing, no doubt," Milbank says. There's also more "nonsense," he says, from the campaigns. "I think they've reached a point where they feel you can say anything, and by the time the press catches up with it, it'll be days if not weeks later." And by that time, the message has sunk in. It's "good to see people pushing back."

But journalists shouldn't pat themselves on the back just yet. Jackson, a former reporter for CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, characterizes the media's truth-squadding this way: "not enough to suit me." Jackson also says much of the "ad watch" coverage, a form he pioneered at CNN during the '92 race, has become "a paint-by-numbers, formulaic, go-through-the-motions kind of thing." The format, he says, is here's the ad, here's where it's running, and accuracy is the last thing mentioned. This-is-a-misleading-ad-spreading-bogus-information-to-thousands is never the headline.

As the election approached, the media were doing more and more truth-finding segments, which is a good thing, Jackson said in late September. But earlier? There were months of missed opportunities, he said. Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, started reviewing the Democratic hopefuls' claims in December 2003. This campaign, he pointed out, began a long time ago.

In other words, there's plenty of room for improvement. Critics would like to see more of this fact-check effort in daily coverage--not just relegated to an ad watch on page A17, and not just reserved for debate time every four years. And they're bothered by stories that strive to balance the offenses, painting both candidates with the same they-all-stretch-the-truth brush.

Spinsanity.org, a site launched in April 2001, has shown that anytime is a good time to question the factual accuracy of politicians' statements. "I think our answer is in some cases it's been better, but it's still far from good enough," says coeditor and cofounder Brendan Nyhan of coverage of this campaign. Nyhan still finds too much he said/he said "objective" journalism. "We just see that over and over and over," he says, "that they're not willing to call one side on it and look unbalanced, and the result is that most stories pass this stuff on unchallenged."

Still, the media mind-set may be shifting. Jackson talks about initially being reluctant to characterize candidates' claims back in '92--he quickly got over it--but ask top editors today whether assessments by reporters go beyond the notions of objective journalism and they react with bewilderment and incredulity. "I don't understand what strictly objective journalism would be," answers Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "Our test is fairness and accuracy, so we want to present what the candidates are saying fairly and accurately as well, and that includes whether they are accurate or not."

Politicians beware: Particularly negative and questionable campaign advertising pushes the media into action. Those pervasive ad watch stories, Jackson says, were largely sparked by the "Willie Horton" ad in the 1988 campaign. The controversial TV spot produced by an independent Republican group sought to blame Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the release of a black convict who later attacked a Maryland couple. This year, while there had been news stories that challenged advertising or allegations, it was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that prompted the media to do some extra truth-seeking of their own.

"I think the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is really what caused the rebirth or certainly the explosion of fact-checks that's now taking place," says CNN Political Director Tom Hannon. "It sort of gave a second life to some of the tools that maybe hadn't been used as much in recent campaigns."

Indeed, the bulk of fact-check special features, including the New York Times' and ABC News', were launched after the Swift Boat ads--which aimed to discredit Kerry's Vietnam War record--had garnered so much media attention. The increase in truth-squadding, says Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, "kind of evolved from a weariness with reproducing volleys of allegations in the context of a regular campaign news report, which doesn't leave you a lot of opportunity to go into detail about each individual item in the indictment." He and Washington Editor Richard L. Berke focused on this aspect of coverage in September, assigning David E. Rosenbaum to make the "Fact Check" feature a part of his job.

Keller cites the Michael Moore documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" as another instigator, but after largely refuting the Swift Boat claims, he says, "We kind of came out of that and said, 'That was a really distasteful experience, and it seems like it's not going to end with the Swift Boat thing.'"

By late September, the media fact-checking machine was revving up. Stories questioning the Bush campaign's charge that Kerry was a flip-flopper sprouted up: Pieces that appeared on September 23 by Knight Ridder's Thomas Fitzgerald and the San Francisco Chronicle's Marc Sandalow found the waffling charge was not supported by the facts. The same day, the Washington Post carried a story by John F. Harris on its front page that raised Democrats' complaints that the real flip-flopper was Bush.

A week later, the Chronicle published another Sandalow analysis, which examined more than 150 of Bush's speeches and statements about the war in Iraq, determining that, indeed, the president's positions had shifted in many instances. Both of Sandalow's analyses ran on page one. CBSNews.com got into the act, posting Bush's Top Ten Flip-Flops one day and Kerry's the next. By the day after the first debate, it was clear the press was in full-fledged fact-check mode.

And journalists took the job seriously. The Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau gathered its foreign policy and defense brain trust to watch the first debate and investigate Bush's and Kerry's assertions, publishing a piece that carried Paul Richter's byline and the names of nine contributors. Washingtonpost.com posted a Debate Referee feature, a transcript of each debate replete with graphics of a mini-football-ref making the time-out sign whenever the Post felt the need to officiate.

The public record was set straight on a number of items. Anyone paying attention to campaign coverage should be able to rattle off a few of them: Kerry did not vote to raise taxes 98 times, the war has not yet cost $200 billion, there are not 900,000 small businesses in America, that Gen. Shinseki guy had already planned on retiring.

Thanks to quick retrieval of archival footage, the networks were able to promptly take the firepower out of such lines as, "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."

It was high season for the truth-tellers, but some wish the media had taken a little more initiative a lot sooner. "I think there are definitely times when the conventions of media say, 'It's OK, now is when we do our fact-checking pieces," Noam Scheiber, senior editor at The New Republic, says of debate-time and ad-watch features. "But I think that needs to make it into the coverage at all times, and if it's not going to, then it's going to be too late." By late September, he says, the story lines for the campaign are already set.

Could the media have donned the truth-squad hats sooner? ABC's Jake Tapper argues that "fact-checking is a job that we're supposed to be doing all the time." So "there's always room for more."

Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus counters that a complaint that a newspaper hasn't given enough coverage to a certain aspect of the campaign often turns out to be a complaint that the paper hasn't done enough lately. The perennial problem with campaign coverage, he says, is "how often to write about the same subject."

In August and early September, McManus says, the Times and others devoted an enormous amount of coverage to fact-checking the candidates' war records. Also in early September, the Times' Nick Anderson, who had been critiquing TV ads, examined the assertions each side was making on the stump.

One factor working against reporters is time: The he said/he said stories can be produced much more quickly. For his analysis piece on the charge that Kerry had flip-flopped repeatedly, Sandalow, the San Francisco Chronicle's Washington bureau chief, printed out Kerry's statements on the war--a stack of papers almost a foot high. "Very time-consuming," Sandalow says of such stories. "That's the big problem with them. They take a lot of time and space to do well, and both of those are pretty precious commodities in journalism."

The Chronicle's political editor, Jim Brewer, says there are always a limited number of reporters covering political issues. He's "always juggling between something that breaks that's important and something we need to get to." Sandalow's stories on Bush and Kerry's Iraq statements illustrate this struggle, he says. "Even near it, we had to do it in two humps, to give him time to get to it and still do other events."

TV has even less of the space--"that's just the nature of the beast," Tapper says--but fact-checking requires a team of researchers who spend a lot of time looking into claims that might turn out to be true, or true enough. "Most of the work is for stuff that we don't put on air," Tapper says, "because we've decided that ultimately," Bush, Vice President Cheney, Kerry or Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards were "correct enough for us to let it slide."

Nyhan notes that reporters don't have to reinvent the wheel every time they check out an assertion. Journalists can rely on experts on their staffs or the work of spinsanity or factcheck.org, he says.

Sandalow was not the first reporter to question the flip-flop story line--in its April 12 edition (a light-year ago) Time magazine asked why the charge was sticking more to Kerry when both candidates had been inconsistent--but the Chronicle piece got more attention because it ran both on A1 and concurrently with similar stories, stories that went against the grain of the president's campaign. Something approaching critical mass was needed to rebut the Republicans' refrain--and even then the refrain won.

Says McManus: "The candidates have a license to repeat an assertion an infinite number of times, and repetition is a standard tool of campaigning." The media tend to challenge the assertion once, maybe twice. "But we certainly don't run a fact-checking story every time the same assertion is repeated, so there may be an imbalance there."

Fact-checks can drown in the daily drone of campaign repetition. For Brendan Nyhan, the choice for the media becomes repeat the spin or challenge it. "It's a game of chicken, and unfortunately, the candidates always win," he says, "because they're willing to keep repeating it and the newspapers aren't willing to take the heat" by debunking something over and over again and getting criticized for it.

Once a news organization has debunked a campaign statement, should its journalists challenge the assertion every time it comes up in daily coverage? Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, doesn't see why not. Reporters, she says, can regularly include a paragraph that says, "He continues to say this; however, we've found..."

"That's what the campaigns are about," says Dunlap. "They keep saying it over and over... What's the harm in the truth-teller saying over and over, 'Here's the truth'?"

But can journalists continue to dispute claims without sounding like they're arguing with the candidates? "It's a dilemma," says Brooks Jackson, "and the question that I think needs to be asked is, does the campaign deserve to be argued with when it's persistently misstating facts."

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank says his rule is to challenge a dubious assertion, and if he doesn't have time to get into it, he'll skip that part of the speech. "If you're going to mention that quotation you should mention that's wrong," Milbank says. "You can do that in shorthand as well."

Scheiber credits Milbank and the Post for being more aggressive in this arena. Milbank, in fact, has written a number of pieces questioning White House statements. On May 31: a piece headlined "From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity; Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks" and on September 24, "Tying Kerry to Terror Tests Rhetorical Limits." Both ran on page one.

Some of the Post's daily coverage has not shied away from countering campaign claims. In an A1 story on a speech Bush gave in Pennsylvania on October 6, the Post's Jim VandeHei wrote that Bush's "assault" included "sharp and sometimes misleading criticisms." The piece included paragraphs that contradicted the president's characterizations of Kerry's tax and health care plans and the senator's "global test" comment. VandeHei also pointed out, when Bush didn't, how much the president's proposals are expected to cost.

Still, journalists are hesitant to get into what may be perceived as a he said/I say exchange. Colleen McCain Nelson, a political reporter at the Dallas Morning News, says she was impressed with VandeHei's story because it provided a lot of insight and was written against a daily deadline. She traveled with both campaigns and on occasion called her editor to ask for research backup. But sometimes, she says, she'd have 20 minutes of filing time, "and it's all you can do to call the other campaign and have them say it's not true."

McCain Nelson had time to write a story on Bush's shifting positions in early September. She says the paper has reminded readers about how his stances have evolved, but she's not sure how often the media can repeat themselves. "We try not to write day after day from Bush the charge that Kerry is a flip-flopper." But, as far as contradicting it when it does appear in a story, she says, "I don't think you want to do anything to the point of exhaustion or to the point that it looks like you have an agenda."

Says Sandalow: "At a minimum, it's important to attribute [the flip-flop charge] to the Bush campaign and, depending on the context," it's important to say the facts don't back that up. But, he says, it's difficult to always fit in an entire paragraph that says, "an analysis has shown that not to be the case."

The Chronicle's Jim Brewer also says it's tough to do this. "I can see that an occasion would arise when you might do that," he says of challenging the flip-flop charge, "but mostly I don't think it would."

It's that ol' game of chicken, and the media would often rather bow out than aggressively play the game. "There's a presumption that they're only going to call you on it so many times," says Scheiber. So politicians "might as well keep doing it." Maybe, he posits, "If [the media] keep pointing it out, they'll stop saying it."

"But no one," he adds, "wants to be written off as a crank or..having a monomaniacal focus."

In fact, the media have a mixed record in correcting discredited statements. A number of news outlets determined that Bush was using a highly distorted number when he repeatedly said Kerry had voted to raise taxes "98 times." A Lexis-Nexis search of news reports in the first half of October showed that in 46 instances, news organizations challenged the statement and in 55 instances, they did not.

There are other times when shorthand--given the half-true, carefully worded or vague campaign statements--can be difficult. Bill Keller at the New York Times says editors have tried "to push back on reporters to include as much [fact-checking] as they can in the stories themselves." But, when "one guy says my opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal and the other guy says, no I'm not, you're not going to pause in mid-story and go on for 300 words on John Kerry's voting record" and whether it is or isn't fiscally responsible.

The first-day, page-one Times coverage of Bush's Pennsylvania speech did not dispute the president's charges. The next day, October 8, the paper published a piece headlined "In New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts," which challenged many of the statements. Three days later, when Elisabeth Bumiller wrote about the new stump speech in a "White House Letter," she noted, parenthetically, a few fact-checks as well. Both stories ran deep in the A section, on page 19.

Keller says it's always ideal to get all of the context into the first-day story, but "if the choice is to let something go unchallenged in a story today and then come back at it tomorrow"--or let it go unchallenged and not come back at it--"I'll take the former. Sometimes it's the best you can do."

And sometimes the guys running for president have to speak for themselves. "I think we do have to let the candidates of the parties do the campaigning," says McManus. "I sometimes get the feeling that what the other side wants is a full-throated rebuttal. Counterattacking isn't our job. Laying out the facts and the context soberly is."

All this fact-checking and we're bound to hear the bias charge--Brooks Jackson has been called both a communist and a shill for the pharmaceutical industry. And in early October, ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin's name and the b-word were bouncing around cable news talk shows.

An internal memo from Halperin, leaked, of course, to the Drudge Report, cautioned reporters not to "reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that." Halperin said that Bush's distortions had gone beyond Kerry's, as had been reported by other news organizations.

While partisans debate whether this proves Halperin has a political bias, journalists say the memo highlights the problem of another prejudice--that of creating a "fake balance."

"I think you can question Mark's choice of words, but he makes a legitimate point," says Keller. "I would say..you hold both sides equally accountable, but that doesn't mean that all offenses are equal."

At the time of Halperin's memo, there was a general belief that the misrepresentations from the Bush campaign were greater than those from Kerry's. "I think it can objectively be said that the Bush campaign has stretched things more than the Kerry campaign has, but they both do it," the Post's Milbank said in early October. But later that month, when Kerry warned of a possible draft and made false and exaggerated claims about the president's plans for social security, his campaign's distortion quotient got a boost. The New York Times' October 19 fact-check feature said that Kerry was criticizing Bush "in a manner that reaches far beyond Mr. Bush's positions."

Some news organizations, particularly in analysis pieces, were not caught up in trying to create a balance. In September, the Washington Post's front page carried a number of stories critical of the Bush camp, including Milbank's and John Harris' pieces, one on GOP distortions at the Republican National Convention, another pointing out that Bush's pledges to voters would cost more than $3 trillion over 10 years. Is Executive Editor Downie worried about one-sidedness? "The world isn't exactly even, at least usually isn't," he says. He adds that at an earlier stage of the campaign when Kerry was having difficult management issues, the Post was covering that on the front page as well. "I hope our reporting accurately reflects the state of reality," Downie says.

Yet Post readers, while appreciative of its debate fact-checking efforts, complained that those features gave the impression that the misstatements on both sides were of the same magnitude. "We don't need recital of an equal number of misstatements but rather a fair evaluation of the validity of those statements," one reader told Post Ombudsman Michael Getler.

Downie counters that if you examine those stories closely, whichever candidate made the most mistakes would be seen in the story to have made the most mistakes. But readers aren't counting the offenses, and headlines like "Attacks Misleading and Out of Context," say critics, are a cop-out, suggesting that, hey, they all play fast and loose with the truth.

"I think the dominant impression it gives is that politicians are all liars," Marjorie R. Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University, says of ad watches and fact-checking stories. Typically, she says, ad watches will criticize a commercial for one candidate, then do the same for another, implying that these are equal untruths. "I hate to see that because I think what it generates is the perception that we don't know who to believe," and maybe we shouldn't believe anybody at all.

Scheiber at The New Republic isn't as concerned with the jaded public as much as he is with jaded politicians. The campaigns know the press' "institutional biases"--presenting one side, then the other--says Scheiber, and they exploit them. Even if one side gets chastised for a distortion, they figure the other side will get called on something as well. The campaigns might as well tell the biggest lie they can tell, he says, because they know they won't get called on its magnitude.

A hesitancy to write it as they see it shows that news organizations need to do some internal analysis, says Dunlap at Poynter. If one candidate is being consistently less truthful, she says, "why aren't we more forthright" in the coverage? Are we concerned that we'll lose audiences? Are we concerned that we're not being fair? If so, the media need to take steps to correct those problems. "What we're seeing in part is a lack of confidence" to present the truth.

Fact-checking some of the statistics used by the candidates is a judgment call as well--most have a granule of truth or even a valid point behind them, worthy of more than "blaaamp! wrong answer."

While many outlets simply declared Kerry was wrong when he accused Bush of never having met with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Washington Post went the extra mile. The paper reported that after the first meeting early in Bush's presidency, caucus members had complained that Bush refused to meet with them again and "often has not even responded to their letters." Bush "dropped by" another meeting, the Post said, held by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

While CNN had a dozen or more researchers helping on-air talent including Jeanne Meserve and William Schneider ferret out the facts, providing more explanation and context is where print can excel--as long as newspapers are willing to devote some space to an explanation of, you know, The Issues. Short items that list bulleted quotes from Bush, Kerry, and then "experts" on such complicated matters as stem-cell research don't quite fit the bill.

The New York Times' fact-check feature, for instance, went into great detail. Reporter Rosenbaum noted that Cheney's and Edwards' dueling jobs numbers didn't tell the whole story: "More importantly, in the view of many economists, employment growth has lagged even further behind the growth in population," he wrote. "So even if the number of jobs returns to its level of January 2001, as many as three million more people would still be unemployed or underemployed than they were then."

Maybe he's being overly skeptical, but Jake Tapper wonders if politicians don't, at least sometimes, continue to repeat false charges, knowing full well the media will fact-check them. Perhaps, Tapper says, the candidates are just getting two mentions of the same claim.

After the second presidential debate, Tapper voiced some of that frustration on air. When asked about Kerry's story of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, which alleged he was forced into retirement after disagreeing with the administration's view of how many troops were needed in Iraq, Tapper said: "That is incorrect. And Sen. Kerry must know this by now. It's been pointed out in fact-checks all over the country."

Whether truth-squadding by the media makes a difference is a matter of debate. Some research has suggested that ad-watch stories on television actually reinforce the message of the ad, rather than debunk it. Other studies have contradicted that finding. But critics don't see enough solid fact-checking out there, particularly in day-to-day coverage, to hold the politicians back.

Says Indiana University's Hershey: "If I were a candidate, I don't think I would feel that being checked would be guaranteed, so I'd be willing to take a risk."

Nyhan of spinsanity.org says politicians have grown accustomed to thinking, "Well, maybe it'll be fact-checked once, but the next 500 times I repeat it, they're not going to correct it most of the time."

But there are examples of politicians modifying their statements--or ditching them altogether--most likely from fact-checking pressure from the media. By the last debate, Kerry had finally started referring to the cost of the war as "$120 billion, up to $200 billion before we're finished," and he even tried to use media truth-squadding against the president. (Bush responded by questioning the media's credibility, an allusion to CBS' memo fiasco in covering the president's military record--and a reminder that the fact-checkers need to carefully check their own facts.)

"The problem," says CNN's Tom Hannon, "is making these things stick with the same power as the assertion." That was part of the research CNN did before launching its ad watches in 1992. The challenge is not so much the legwork, Hannon says, it's giving the story the same reach as the initial charge. Web sites could be a huge help in this regard, he suggests.

It'll take more than one cable news network in Atlanta, after all.

Brooks Jackson urges news organizations to do more, and spend more. "I would tell publishers to hire more people and take this more seriously and devote more resources to it. Frankly the world's getting more complicated every day," he says. "Therefore, it's getting easier to obfuscate and lie about it every day, and I don't think the press as an institution is remotely keeping up with the ability of trained obfuscators to deceive the public."

The popularity of factcheck.org has shown the public wants this. In September, the site attracted an average of 29,000 unique visitors per day. After Vice President Cheney mentioned the site in a debate--well, tried to--factcheck.org's traffic shot up to 130,000 to 150,000 visitors per day, when new articles were posted. From August through October, spinsanity.org attracted between 140,000 and 165,000 unique visitors a month.

Sandalow, too, says though he received some hate mail after his flip-flop stories ran, he got more positive feedback for the Kerry story than possibly for any story he had ever written. "With the Internet, it's very easy for people to read or see what the candidates said, but if you can provide some sort of expertise or context for the truthfulness of it, that gives the reader something they have trouble getting someplace else."

Could it be--an aggressive fact-checking movement afoot? Even the highly critical Nyhan sees a shift: "I think we are starting to see a culture change even within news organizations. The people who are, say, bloggers, are much more aggressive about this... The success of Knight Ridder before the war in Iraq, as opposed to the rest of American journalism..I think it's all starting to add up."

"But"--he can't be that optimistic--"commercial pressures on the media to not be seen as biased or be targeted for boycott are so intense that it's still holding us back."

There's plenty of room for improvement.

Editorial assistant Dorcas Taylor contributed research to this report.