But Bush was unencumbered by reality. Even though Kerry clearly said he would not seek other nations’ permission if a pre-emptive strike was “necessary,” Bush accused him of saying that he would. So how did the big-boy newspapers cover this to-do? The New York Times ran a piece headlined, “Bush Says Kerry’s Remarks Show Weakness on Security.” The Washington Postreported, “Bush Says Kerry Will Allow Foreign Vetoes.” Both articles did quote Kerry aides insisting that Bush was wrong — but only after focusing on Bush’s accusation. Each afforded better treatment to the charge (which was untrue) than to the reply (which was true) by defining Bush’s criticism of Kerry as the news of the day. Television news took the same tack. CNN reported that “Bush is going on the offensive,” “blasting Kerry” and “honing in on a suggestion that Kerry would launch a pre-emptive military strike as part of a ‘global test.’” It showed Bush saying that Kerry “would give foreign governments veto power over [U.S.] national-security decisions.” CNN noted that Kerry’s camp “says that Mr. Bush is taking what Senator Kerry says out of context.” But, as with the newspaper reports, CNN was letting Bush’s untrue statement determine the agenda. Why was it not news — even front-page news — that the president of the United States (a) did not understand a not-too-complex notion presented by his opponent or (b) purposefully mischaracterized a statement regarding a key issue of national security for his own political gain?
Following the debates this year, the major newspapers have run stories on the veracity of the candidates’ assertions. But in most cases, the articles are not given much play and, perhaps worse, they reinforce a misleading meta-story: Both candidates last night said things that were not accurate. After the vice-presidential debate, the Washington Post reported that John Edwards and Dick Cheney had each omitted “key facts.” But most of the significant examples came from Cheney. Despite such attempts at unduly evenhanded examinations, the overall dynamic of the political coverage is tit-for-tat, attack and counterattack, with reporters acting as stenographers rather than watchdogs. This works to the advantage of a candidate who has no compunction about lying. And the Bush campaign’s point is not to prove its charge but to foster the impression that Kerry is weak on national security. Headlines and news stories that report Bush’s (baseless) allegations in a straightforward manner aid and abet that effort.
This is important for Bush, for his strategy for the rest of the campaign clearly is to throw whatever he can at Kerry, true or not. His aides know that voters who are undecided at this stage in the race are generally not the type of people who will be predicating their final decision on a close and careful reading of the record. Instead, they will be voting on their impressions of the candidates — and these impressions can be shaped dramatically by untrue attacks carried by media more willing to be messenger than judge.