November 10, 2004

The exam is over. Here come the grades.

And giving out grades is pretty much what Campaign Desk is doing in its six-part series looking at how the US media performed during the 2004 presidential campaign.

In the first installment, Thomas Lang looks at how the press was an accomplice in the spreading of misinformation about the candidates. At first, says Lang the press was seemingly unable to do the most basic fact-checking. And then, when it shifted into fact-checking mode after the Republican convention in September, it hedged its bets and sabotaged its own efforts:

First off, many of the fact-checks focused on dubious claims that had already influenced the decision-making process of the voters, such as the revised Bush campaign talking point that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes (another inflated number) or the Kerry campaign talking point that the Iraq war had cost $200 billion (also exaggerated). While it's never too late to ensure that readers receive the truth, polling showed that in these cases, many of them had already made up their minds. The horse was out of the barn -- months before a negligent press suddenly got busy shutting barn doors and windows.

Second, the fact checking, in both print and television, was ghettoized -- denoted, for instance, by a "for the record" heading in the Washington Post and a "fact check" banner on ABC News. While this technique can grab the reader's or viewer's attention, it also reveals the news media's reluctance to acknowledge that the candidates' deliberate attempts to mislead the public is the story that should be making front page news, not the latest musical chairs game shuffling various campaign personnel.

Third, evenhanded-to-a-fault notions of "objectivity" obscured more than one real truth. Thus, fact-checks often suffered from a bending-over-backward attempt to present an equal number of misleading claims from each candidate. This did not represent reality, and is approximately as realistic as expecting each candidate to weigh the same as the other, or dress the same, or behave the same. Furthermore, the fact-checks would have been more effective with stronger language and less-tempered headlines. At times, asserting the newspaper's voice is the most powerful way to convey a message, yet it's something reporters and editors fear to this day. In the face of well-funded political operations that exist to deceive, news organizations should not be hesitant to say so.

Lang's article is a must-read.

Posted by Magpie at November 10, 2004 03:47 PM | Media | Technorati links |