Shading the Truth, Part 3

SHADING THE TRUTH, PART 3….Michael Getler, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, today tackles one of the key issues of this year’s campaign coverage: is it OK to merely say that both candidates are less than truthful if one of them is clearly less truthful than the other?

Immediately after the vice presidential debate between Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, The Post, on Oct. 6, produced a solid “For the Record” fact-checking story that was headlined “Misleading Assertions Cover Iraq War and Voting Records.” Yet you could argue fairly, as I thought some did, that the largest and most important part of this story was the job it did challenging Cheney’s statement before a huge television audience that “I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11.” But the headline and first paragraph gave no powerful clue about that, or about the fact that when you read through the piece most of it is spent challenging statements by Cheney.

The next day, a fact-checking story carried the headline “Halliburton Charges Jumbled by Edwards and Denied by Cheney.” This was also solid reporting, but the thrust of the article essentially backed up and explained most of Edwards’s charges. Yet the one instance of a “jumbled” reference by Edwards to two contracts got the second paragraph of the story and the headline.

It’s good to see reporters starting to wake up to this. Exaggeration and oversimplification are the stock in trade of all politicians, but the Bush/Cheney campaign has relied on outright deception far more than the Kerry/Edwards campaign, and it’s time to say so. It’s not enough to simply write a laundry list article that points out, say, five serious lies by Bush in a debate and two moderate ones from Kerry (with 90% of it unread anyway because it’s on the jump on page 23). If that’s what the story says, the headline and the lead should clearly say it too.

The media is allowing its own conventions to be used against it, and this won’t stop unless politicians pay a price for doing so. Nor is this a merely partisan issue. After all, if the Bush administration’s disdain for the truth and more general disdain for the press works ? and so far it’s worked pretty well ? do they really think a President Kerry won’t learn a few lessons from it?