Fact Checking in the 2004 Presidential Debates
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TERENCE SMITH: Amid the usual flurry of spin, counter-spin and commentary after the recent debates, many news organizations have added a new facet to their own instant analysis:
NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Facts, the saying goes, are stubborn things.
TERENCE SMITH: Checking up on whether the candidates’ statements check out.
NEWS CORRESPONDENT: — and give you a reality check on what they said.
TERENCE SMITH: After the first debate, CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts tested the candidates against reality.
BYRON PITTS: There were times last night when both men exaggerated, oversimplified or simply got it wrong. Here’s a reality check. When Senator Kerry said…
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Now we have this incredible mess in Iraq, $200 billion.
BYRON PITSS: Not quite. The cost of the war to date is actually just over $120 billion, but will top $200 billion eventually.
TERENCE SMITH: After last week’s closing debate, CNN’s Jeanne Meserve found the two candidates’ use of facts questionable.
JEANNE MESERVE: For this one night at least, Tempe, Arizona, was the home of the whopper. Both candidates got facts wrong.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.
JEANNE MESERVE: Well, he said something awfully close in March of 2002.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.
TERENCE SMITH: Many newspapers also fact checked the debates in their next day’s papers. With the added space, papers lent additional depth to the fact check. By the third presidential debate, the fact checks themselves had made their way into the back-and- forth.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, two leading national news networks have both said the president’s characterization of my healthcare plan is incorrect. One called it fiction; the other called it untrue.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In all due respect, I’m not so sure it’s credible to quote leading news organizations about… well, never mind, anyway. ( laughs )
TERENCE SMITH: The fact check phenomenon has not been exclusive to the debates. Indeed, newspapers and some television outlets, including the NewsHour, have been fact-checking the candidates’ advertising and stump speeches throughout the campaign season.
But are all fact checks created equal? A memorandum recently circulated by Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, and leaked to conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge, said the Bush campaign relies on distortion more than the Kerry campaign. Halperin wrote in part: “We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides equally accountable when the facts don’t warrant it.”
Several newspapers have also run articles echoing Halperin’s concern. The Bush campaign has questioned the legitimacy of such reporting, saying they should be able to make arguments without being “reflexively dismissed as distorted.”
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to discuss the art and science of fact-checking is Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post; Brooks Jackson, director of factcheck.org; and Jake Tapper, an ABC News correspondent who’s been on the fact-check beat.
Welcome to you all.
Jake Tapper, tell us how you go about this, how many people are involved, how you decide fact from fiction.
JAKE TAPPER: Well, on the debate nights, it’s a huge team of producers and other correspondents who have expertise, for instance, our economic business correspondent Betsy Stark, and a lot of other reporters who are just sitting around, and we’re watching the debates and we’re listening to what the candidates are saying. Our ears are pricked to hear if they’re going to make false claims that they’ve made in the past, but also, of course, for new ones as well.
TERENCE SMITH: Brooks Jackson, what is or should be the goal of this? I mean, it shouldn’t be, I suppose, “gotcha” journalism. It should be something more than that?
BROOKS JACKSON: It should not be gotcha journalism. We like to think of ourselves as a consumer advocate for voters. That’s our audience. Especially when candidates make statements that directly contradict each other, for example, we’re especially listening for those leaving voters bewildered. We try to sort it out for them. Who’s right? They both can’t be right.
TERENCE SMITH: What about this as a function for newspapers and news organizations, Mike Getler? Does it take it… it certainly takes it beyond the “he said, she said, you decide” type of journalism.
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, it does. Reporters shouldn’t just be stenographers, so to speak. And newspapers and main news organizations generally, I think, make a very solid and good-faith effort to try to protect the reader and to put these claims… competing claims in some perspective.
So in a sense, it’s the very… one of the very best instincts of journalists to provide these kinds of fact-checks. On the other hand, it does make you a little bit vulnerable to one side or the other truly misrepresenting things if you present them in a totally balanced fashion as opposed to trying to sort it out for the reader if some of… if one or two of the misrepresentations are more serious than the others.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you do, Jake Tapper, if in fact one side has been much more egregious in its distortions or exaggerations or misstatements than the other? I mean, do you achieve some sort of balance and, if so, is it an artificial balance?
JAKE TAPPER: Well, that’s a complicated question. And, of course, that gets into the Mark Halperin memo that you referenced in the introduction to this piece. Mark is a great and very fair reporter and our political director here. His point was, at that particular time in the campaign, the Bush campaign was making much more wild, much more egregiously false statements about Senator Kerry.
Since then, I think Senator Kerry, we could probably all agree, has picked up the slack and in terms of his charges on the draft and flu and Social Security is probably about par with President Bush in terms of misstatements.
You just have to represent the facts. I mean, you really… as I think Brooks said, you really have to be the advocate for the voter. It’s not necessarily “he said, he said.” You don’t want to be equating a minor misstatement that one candidate says with a huge whopper that another makes, but if both candidates are sayings falsehoods, which is generally the case, you try to provide a balance… a balanced look.
TERENCE SMITH: Brooks, you’ve been doing this for a dozen years for different organizations. How do you achieve a balance that is in… that does reflect the facts?
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, I think the balance has to come in the standards you bring to each individual factual claim. And I’ve always thought when I was at CNN and my boss Kathleen Hall Jamieson and I both agree at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, where I now hang my hat, that we should not try to achieve some kind of artificial balance by criticizing one candidate on one day just because we criticized another candidate on another day. We’re going to criticize the misstatements that we find. And if one candidate’s telling the truth all the time and the other candidate isn’t, it’s going to be pretty one-sided, but so far that hasn’t happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike Getler, what do you think about the statement of the Bush campaign representative who said, we ought to be able to get our arguments out there without having them in, in his word, “reflexively dismissed as distorted.”
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, they obviously… neither side’s statements should be reflexively dismissed, but there is an obligation on behalf of the public of news organizations to keep the record straight. And you need to do it right away. You need to do it with some immediacy, because that’s when people are paying attention. It’s very difficult to do. And just to go back on an earlier point, if you produce headlines and lead paragraphs all the time which say, “well, they traded barbs today,” or “they traded complaints today,” that’s fair and balanced, but it may not get people into those stories. It may not get people to read what may be very important distortions and mistakes.
TERENCE SMITH: Jake, have you heard from the campaigns when you do this? Are they unhappy with you?
JAKE TAPPER: Yeah. (Laughter) I think that’s fair to say. They’re both… see, it’s very seldom that they don’t have an argument to make. You might have the occasional just plain falsehood that they say, but often they’re repeating facts and figures that are based on a public interest group that happens to be very liberal or very conservative, or their interpretation of what their opponent has said is one that is grounded in some sort of what they argue larger truth. I hate that larger truth argument because I’d rather have them stick to the smaller truths, at least for our purposes.
But, yeah, you do hear from the campaigns quite often. Even… there was one time we were trying to do a fact-check for just 48 hours of campaigning, and it turned out to be we looked at two Bush charges and one Kerry charge. I was accused by some on the right for being unfair for going after Bush for two things and Kerry for only one. And yet we heard from Kerry people, too, who thought that that one was not fair and was an attempt by us to be artificially balanced when, in fact, in their view President Bush was lying and their candidate was not, which of course was not our view.
TERENCE SMITH: Brooks, you’ve done this through several presidential cycles. Is… are the distortions or exaggerations or misstatements any more egregious or less in this campaign than previous ones?
BROOKS JACKSON: I don’t know how to measure that, Terry. We… it’s certainly as bad as many that I’ve seen in the past, but I just don’t know how you can objectively measure the degree of mendacity in any particular statement or in a group of statements. It would just be my opinion, and since I’m supposed to be fact- check and not “opinion” check, I’ll just have to say I don’t know.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike, any opinion on that?
MICHAEL GETLER: I think there’s certainly a lot more fact-checking going on now, and also the advertisements are fact-checked, which I also think is a great service to readers. I do think it’s… the importance of the fact-checking is very, very important to voters and politicians. I mean, if you have 53 million people watching a debate, the problem is that a tiny fraction of that will see the follow-up fact-check stories. And that’s why they’re so important and yet they must be done in ways that, in fact, illuminate the public.
TERENCE SMITH: Jake, if it’s worth doing after a debate, is it worth doing after every stump speech or advertisement is run? Is it worth doing year-round, not just in a campaign mode?
JAKE TAPPER: Well, I think what you start to see, at least at ABC News what we’ve started to do after introducing the fact-check feature is it’s now kind of making its way into individual stories. Brooks might recall from yesterday he appeared in a fact-check story that I did. I guess it was Tuesday. But he also appeared in a story that one of our men on the campaign trail did because the fact-check feature, in this case Brooks Jackson, was working its way into all sorts of journalism, not just the facts- check piece itself.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any down side to this in your view? I mean, it obviously could be a vehicle for favoring one campaign over another.
MICHAEL GETLER: No. I think it’s all a plus, a big plus. I think the problem is that politicians on all sides understand that the corrections never quite catch up with the statements. And when you have a huge audience, whether it’s on television or a big campaign rally, they will go ahead and continue to use those misrepresentations despite the efforts of others to correct them.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Brooks, after the election, what do you do?
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, we’ll…
TERENCE SMITH: Do you continue? Does one do this on a continuing basis?
BROOKS JACKSON: We intend to. The factcheck.org will continue after the election. There’s sure to be a big debate either on a Kerry health care plan or a George Bush Social Security plan, depending on who’s elected and any number of other things, and sure to be lots of dubious statements made about those things in the course of the debate. So there’s lots of work to do even in a non-campaign year.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, the phrase “Teflon candidate” is heard again and again. It’s being heard again this year, as though the candidates are not affected by criticisms of their accuracy or of the truth or falsity of their statements. Jake Tapper, is that prevalent or present this year?
JAKE TAPPER: I guess I’m of two minds on that. On one level, I think that we do these fact-checks and as you see and as you’ve seen in the last few days and as we anticipate for the next week-and-a-half, certainly the lies are only getting more egregious, the statements more overblown.
By the same token, though, I think that a lot of the things that we’ve pointed out as fact- checkers, whether Brooks or me or Byron Pitts or Michael or whomever, is that I have noticed candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry not making the same mistakes twice. Some of the ones, whether it’s Bush saying that Kerry… you know, eight out of 10 people in Kerry’s health care plan will be in a government-run health care plan or that sort of argument, which we fact-checked. He’ll continue to make that one.
But there are other ones, such as the $200 billion claim that Kerry made about the Iraq war, that he’s backed off, that he’s a lot more careful about. So I do think that while the lies are increasing because of the pending nature of the election, they have been a little bit more careful to take note of our fact-checks.
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes, I would agree with that. It was odd to see Kerry continue with that $200 billion figure when it was, I think, thanks to Brooks, was pointed out it was incorrect. He finally did back off. I think it does have an effect that politicians know that they are more vulnerable to being criticized now and being caught in these misrepresentations, whether it’s on television fact- checking or in print. And it adds to the value of this.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, gentlemen, thank you all three very much.