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The Press and the Lies

I only saw the first two-thirds or so of the Cheney-Edwards debate (after that I had to get our daughter to bed so my wife could write an actual news story about the debate), but my strongest impression was surprise at the audacity with which Cheney made assertions that just weren't true. (I've got some longer ruminations about this shamelessness in a post coming later.) The assertion that he'd never met Edwards before was the most quickly disproven (although it struck me at first as remotely plausible -- when Cheney said, "I'm up at the Senate most Tuesdays," I knew that what he meant was that he often attends the Republican policy lunch held on Tuesdays, to which Edwards is obviously not invited.)

But Cheney knows that the dynamic of the press is always to write the story, "both sides stretched the truth...," so there's no reason, once having crossed the line not to go all the way to the zone of lunacy.

Sure enough, the Washington Post came through, with a very thorough and almost instant analysis of the dubious claims in the debate. Here's the headline and the lead:

Misstatements Include Iraq, Taxes and Voting Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Cheney clashed repeatedly in their debate last night, making impressive-sounding but misleading statements on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to tax cuts to each other's records, often omitting key facts along the way.

All this would lead you to believe that the two were equally guilty of "misleading statements" and "omitting key facts."

The first examples concern Cheney's demonstrably false claim that he had never asserted links between Iraq and 9/11. Then the story turns, with the phrase, "Edwards, for his part, asserted that the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion 'and counting' -- an assertion that Cheney called him on."

But the story goes on to endorse Edwards' number: the government "has allocated -- or plans to spend -- $174 billion, and the tab should run as high as $200 billion in the next year once other expected supplemental spending is added." In other words, despite the lead-in, this is yet another X on Cheney's scorecard, not Edwards'.

And on it goes, through Cheney's false claims about the financial contributions of other countries to the Iraq effort and to his assertion that Iraqi security force casualties should be counted as part of the coalitions, which turns out not even to be factually true.

Finally, in the twelfth paragraph, an actual not-quite-accurate statement from Edwards: "Edwards asserted that 'the president is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that is completely unnecessary.' But Bush simply endorsed such an amendment that had already been introduced on Capitol Hill." That's all you've got? And that distinction is relevant because...? There are two other Edwards "misleading statements," equally trivial, including his statement that the Bush administration is "for outsourcing of jobs," whereas, the Post notes helpfully, administration officials have said that outsourcing is good for the U.S. economy but have not specifically endorsed the practice.

The text is a good story, and a very impressive journalistic feat. These print reporters (Glenn Kessler and Jim VandeHei, with Mike Allen, Jonathan Weisman and Walter Pincus credited as contributors) did in minutes what the blogs will need a day to do. But still: Why couldn't the headline be, "Cheney Tells Dozens of Whoppers"? Because that is the story, and the glib journalistic cliche of "both sides stretch the truth" merely obscures the actual story.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 6, 2004 | Permalink


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Maybe the Post has Cheney write their headlines.

Posted by: goethean | Oct 6, 2004 12:40:24 PM

If they went with your headline, the Post wouldn't get invited to the next splendid little war. Bad for business...

Posted by: LarryB | Oct 6, 2004 2:04:11 PM

I watched last night's debate and thought it was a tie at best. I was a little discouraged, but realized that Cheney is no Bush.

Then, however, after seeing all the fact checking come in on Cheney's statements, it looked like another bad night for the Republicans.

Did Cheney think that no one would check the accuracy of what he was saying? Especially, his signature line of the night about not ever having met Edwards?

I think the Bushies have run out of gas. The train is off the tracks. They can't stop lying and lying and lying.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 6, 2004 9:31:40 PM

On one hand, this problem of equating the level of dishonesty of two individuals which in reality differs completely is one of the biggest problems with modern journalism. It feeds into all the cynicism in America about politics and allows journalists to avoid making difficult calls.

On the other hand, journalists treatment of Al Gore suggests that they really have very little trouble accusing one politician of lying more than another politician, even if it isn't so...

Journalism suffers from much more than simple, "on the one hand, but on the other hand" type articles. Since the mid-90s the media has given the Democrats worse treatment than the Republicans. I have no idea WHY this is the case, but it IS, and I think we need to address that head on.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Oct 7, 2004 9:37:09 AM

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