9/9/08—A September 7 Washington Post article purported to offer "a guide to some of the more questionable assertions" coming from the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets at the recent party conventions. But what the paper really gave readers was a lesson in media "false balance," where corporate journalists feel obligated to give equal attention to political lies or exaggerations from both sides--even when the facts suggest that the deception is mostly on one side.
The Post's Michael Dobbs introduced his "fact-check" with an equal criticism of both major parties: "The political convention season generated its usual share of outlandish spin, misleading rhetoric and outright fibs. The presidential and vice-presidential nominees for both parties resorted to some dubious arguments to attack their opponents while promoting their own accomplishments and policy proposals." Accordingly, the Post offered one example each from Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden, paired with an example from Republican John McCain and another from GOP running mate Sarah Palin.
According to the Post, Obama misled when he said his spending proposals could be paid for "by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens." The paper suggested that Obama's spending plans are actually more costly than his proposed savings. The Post's critique is based on a report by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (8/29/08), which treats the renewal of any of the Bush tax cuts (as opposed to allowing them to expire as scheduled) as a new addition to the deficit, rather than a continuation of current policies, as Obama maintains.
You can certainly make a case that the group's position is the proper way to look at budget numbers, but those who disagree include not just the Obama budgeters but the McCain camp as well. The Post cited the Committee's president as estimating that Obama's tax proposals "would probably cost the U.S. Treasury about $400 billion a year." Actually, the report that Dobbs linked to estimates that Obama's tax policy would cost $360 billion, while McCain's would cost between $417 billion and $485 billion. So why is this a gotcha for Obama and not for McCain?
Biden, meanwhile, criticized McCain by saying he "has voted with President Bush 95 percent. And that is very hard to believe." The Post called this an exaggeration, but its debunking was hardly convincing:
Biden is exaggerating McCain's support for the president's policies. According to Congressional Quarterly, which keeps score, McCain supported the Bush administration on 95 percent of the votes in 2007. But his loyalty score for the first 7 1/2 years of the Bush presidency is lower: 90 percent.
The Post went on to explain that McCain's record this year in voting with the White House is 100 percent. For an article that was supposed to uncover the "more questionable assertions" coming from both sides, it is hard to see how this example measures up--particularly given that the McCain of 2008 will be on the ballot in November, not the McCain of 2002, who had a radically different political orientation.
On the Republican side, John McCain was flagged by the Post for giving an inaccurate timeline for the Russia/Georgia conflict. McCain was quoted saying that Russia "invaded a small, democratic neighbor," which the Post considered misleading because it was Georgia (the "small democratic neighbor") that "attacked first" with its military strikes on South Ossetia. The Post was correct, though it might have come as a surprise to many readers, since McCain's version of events is in accord with virtually all of the reporting in the corporate U.S. media (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/14/08). In any case, the Georgian situation has been at best a minor issue in the 2008 campaign.
Finally, the Post took issue with Sarah Palin's description of her opposition to the famous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska: "[I] championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' on that 'Bridge to Nowhere.'"
Here at last the "fact-checker" found an indisputably deceptive statement that actually plays a major role in campaign rhetoric. Palin, in fact, endorsed the bridge project as a candidate for governor, changing her position only after her election when Congress removed the earmark that allocated funding for the project. But rather than telling readers that Palin lied, the Post euphemistically wrote that she "is overstating her opposition to earmarks and the Bridge to Nowhere."
To claim you were an opponent of something you actually supported is not "overstating your opposition," it's a simple and straightforward misrepresentation. (She's no more an opponent of earmarks than she was of the bridge; she was actually very successful at winning funding for her town and state through earmarks, including some that McCain singled out for ridicule--L.A. Times, 9/3/08.)
The Post's awkward report, like most such stories, was hampered by the insistence on an artificial "balance" that avoids suggesting that one side is more deceptive than another. This false balance prevented the Post from acknowledging one of the most basic and troubling facts about the 2008 election: that the Republicans' campaign is fundamentally based on distortions of their opponents' records and proposals.
For example, one constant GOP theme, repeated by both Palin and McCain, is that Obama would raise voters' taxes.
From Palin's acceptance speech: "Taxes are too high.... He wants to raise them.... The Democratic nominee for president supports plans to raise income taxes, raise payroll taxes, raise investment income taxes, raise the death tax, raise business taxes and increase the tax burden on the American people by hundreds of billions of dollars."
From McCain's speech: "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them.... My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them."
In reality, the Obama tax plan would result in a net tax decrease compared to current tax law for the vast majority of taxpayers--a larger cut than McCain would provide. As a Tax Policy Center analysis (8/25/08) described these differences:
The Obama plan would reduce taxes for low- and moderate-income families, but raise them significantly for high-bracket taxpayers.... By 2012, middle-income taxpayers would see their after-tax income rise by about 5 percent, or nearly $2,200 annually. Those in the top 1 percent would face a $19,000 average tax increase--a 1.5 percent reduction in after-tax income.
McCain would lift after-tax incomes an average of about 3 percent, or $1,400 annually, for middle-income taxpayers by 2012. But, in sharp contrast to Obama, he would cut taxes for those in the top 1% by more than $125,000, raising their after-tax income an average 9.5 percent.
Given how central the economy is to voters' expressed concerns, reporting on misleading rhetoric should point out this erroneous spin at every turn.
On another key issue--energy--the GOP tickets' rhetoric is equally misleading. Conventioneers cheered this passage in McCain's acceptance speech:
Senator Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power. But Americans know better than that. We must use all resources and develop all technologies necessary to rescue our economy from the damage caused by rising oil prices and to restore the health of our planet.
In fact, the federal Energy Information Agency points out (2/07) that expanded oil drilling offshore and in other environmentally sensitive areas will not increase oil supplies for decades, and the increase will be so slight as to have an insignificant impact on the price of gasoline. (And, of course, expanded drilling will do nothing to "restore the health of our planet.") McCain's statement is also deceptive about Obama's position on nuclear power; the Democratic candidate has said that it "has to be part of our energy mix" (CNN, 11/15/07).
McCain also accused Obama of endorsing a health care plan that would "force families into a government-run healthcare system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor." This is utterly false; Obama has not proposed a "government-run" healthcare system of any sort.
These are the main issues that the Republicans laid out at their convention, and each is grounded in claims that are demonstrably false. In trying to adhere to a journalistic goal of "balance," the Post actually provided the opposite--a presentation that gave readers an unbalanced picture of the actual extent of misleading rhetoric at each convention. When politicians can count on that kind of approach from influential media outlets, pragmatic politicians will take advantage of the lack of a meaningful downside to lying--and more principled politicians will be at an extreme disadvantage.
ACTION: Please tell the Washington Post that it is not helpful to depict each campaign as being equally deceptive if most of the deception is perpetrated by one side.
Ombud Deborah Howell
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This story was published on September 11, 2008.