In my 33 years of covering Washington and national politics, I’ve had some of the best jobs in American journalism — including the development of ‘adwatch’ and ‘factcheck’ stories for CNN. And with the launch today of factcheck.org I hope to continue my professional lucky streak. This is going to be a fun job — and somebody has to do it.
There already have been lots of dubious factual claims and outright falsehoods tossed around in the Presidential campaign: Howard Dean falsely claiming that most middle-class taxpayers got no tax cut, Wesley Clark wrongly denying that he’s ever wavered on voting to allow use of force in Iraq, the Republican National Committee’s ad claiming that Democrats are attacking the President “for attacking the terrorists,” and President Bush himself straining to create the impression that the White House had nothing to do with a “Mission Accomplished” banner featured in his fly-in speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. And if history is any guide there will be more fibs and flubs to come as the campaign grinds on.
Sometimes the bogus claims are just silly, such as the phantom soldier from Togo . During a Democratic candidates’ debate on Oct. 9, Dick Gephardt went overboard trying to ridicule a lack of international support for the U.S. in Iraq . Gephardt said that "you’ve got to get the help of our friends. (Bush) keeps saying we’ve got 30 countries helping us. Yes, Togo sent one soldier.” Actually, according to word relayed to factcheck.org from Ambassador Pascal Bodjona of the Togolese Republic, the country has not sent any troops to Iraq at all. A Gephardt spokesman said the candidate was trying to make a joke. But with someone as humor-challenged as Gephardt, how are voters supposed to know?
A more serious matter is the flurry of false claims being made about the two large tax cuts signed by President Bush. A John Edwards ad tells voters their taxes have gone up, which isn’t true. Then another Edwards ad says that multimillionaires are paying lower tax rates than cops or secretaries, which is hardly ever true. And Howard Dean said in a Sept. 4 debate that “most middle-class people never got a tax cut from George Bush,” when in fact nearly everybody making $20,000 or more a year did get a cut. This sort of misinformation gives voters a distorted picture of the most basic of all pocketbook issues. It’s true wealthy taxpayers got much bigger tax cuts than middle-income taxpayers – but it’s just wrong to say middle-income taxpayers got nothing. They got plenty – which is a big reason the federal deficit is soaring. Where is Ross Perot when we need him?
Democratic candidates also have been busy inflating claims about the severity of the economic downturn – making sometimes ludicrous comparisons to the Great Depression. One downright silly liberal ad compares Bush to Herbert Hoover, despite the fact that the economy and employment are now growing strongly after a downturn that was relatively mild by historical standards. It’s no mystery why Demcorats are straining the facts about the economy — the out-of-power party generally has a hard time making gains at the polls when the economy is booming and people have money in their pockets. And for the ‘outs’ the next best thing to a bad economy is having a public that thinks the economy is bad. This is true without regard to political party — back in President Clinton’s first year it was the Republican minority in Congress that was trying to make political hay with talk of a ‘jobless recovery’ that eventually became the longest boom in US history. Still, that’s no excuse for cooking the books the way some Democrats have been doing lately. John Kerry claimed in his formal announcement speech that the U.S. is suffering “the greatest job loss since the Great Depression.” A Gephardt ad in Iowa claimed: “George Bush has lost more jobs since any President since Herbert Hoover.” And it’s become a Democratic mantra that more than 3 million jobs have disappeared since Bush took office, which just isn’t true. In fact the decline in total employment – at its worst — was a little more than 2.7 million jobs. Ronald Reagan lost more jobs than that in 1981-82, at a time when total employment was much lower. The Reagan recession sent unemployment to 10.8%, which the Bush recession peaked at 6.2%, relatively mild by historic standards.
And it’s not just Democrats, of course. The temptation to re-write history when things go bad is overwhelming, regardless of party. President Bush did it in a news conference on Nov. 3, when he denied responsibility for a sign that had appeared behind him in front-page photos of his speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq . "The MISSION ACCOMPLISHED sign, of course, was put up by the members of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished,” The President said. “I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff — they weren’t that ingenious, by the way.” But that wasn’t entirely true. Later, Bush’s press secretary admitted that the sign was actually supplied by the White House. He said somebody in the carrier crew had asked for it, but who that might be remains a mystery.
Our goal here can’t be to find truth — that’s a job for philosophers and theologians. What we can do here is sort through the factual claims being made between now and election day, using the best techniques of journalism and scholarship.
And I can think of no better job for a journalist than holding politicians accountable for getting the facts right, regardless of their party or political philosophy. As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion — but not their own facts.”