Press Box

Raging Bull

Smoking out candidates’ smears and distortions.

The Post strikes back—quickly

How do you know when George W. Bush is lying?

The standard punch line is, of course, when his lips are moving. But a more sensitive test for detecting Bush bull seems to have fallen into the possession of Washington Post political reporter Jim VandeHei. VandeHei’s Page One story in this morning’s Post (Oct. 7), Bush: Kerry Would ‘Weaken’ U.S.,” repeatedly busts Bush for peddling falsehoods in the Oct. 6 speech  that the administration hyped as a big news event.

The policing of facts is as old as newspapering itself. But since the fact-challenged days of the Reagan administration, American newspapers have ghettoized campaign truth-squading with short articles inside “A” section. A fine example of this sort of reporting appears in today’s Post, where Robert O’Harrow Jr. nails John Edwards for exaggerating and embellishing the scale of Halliburton wrongdoing in the Edwards-Cheney debate two days ago.

What’s noteworthy about VandeHei’s piece is that it combines the “day hit” news story about the candidate’s speech with the truth-squad piece that usually doesn’t get written until the day after. When Bush says, “Kerry has looked for every excuse to constrain America’s action in the world. … He has built a record of weakness,” VandeHei produces this immediate—and more accurate—condensation: “While Kerry voted against the 1991 Gulf War and many defense bills, he has supported numerous increases in defense spending and voted for multilateral action in Kosovo, Bosnia and Somalia, as well as for the 2002 Iraq war resolution.”

When Bush accuses Kerry of handcuffing U.S. interests by applying a “global test” before taking action, VandeHei charges Bush—correctly—with reaching “back to comments from the early 1970s” to misrepresent “Kerry’s stated position: the Democratic nominee has repeatedly said he would consult with but never allow other nations to veto U.S. actions.”

VandeHei also catches Bush mischaracterizing Kerry on taxes. Bush says Kerry will raise taxes for all Americans, when Kerry has said that tax increases are in store for those making in excess of $200,000 and that tax reductions would go to most everyone else and corporations. VandeHei also corrects Bush for inaccurately claiming that Kerry will resurrect “Clinton care” and require the rationing of medical services.

VandeHei saves the best for last: Bush told the audience that Kerry will increase spending by $2 trillion, when Bush has proposed programs that could cost up to $3 trillion.

Compare VandeHei’s technique to the flat approach of the New York Times (“Stump Speech Retooled, Bush Goes on Attack,” Page One). The Times doesn’t call out Bush for his hyperbole. Instead, it goes to candidate John Edwards and Kerry spokesperson Mike McCurry to contest the tenor—but not the facts—of the speech. The Los Angeles Times does only slightly better with its inside piece, “Bush Stiffens Attack on Kerry Fiscal, Foreign Policies.” It reports that Kerry aides accuse Bush of mischaracterizing Kerry’s position and notes, “At last week’s debate, Kerry emphasized that he would never give another nation veto power over his foreign policy.” The rest of the report is mostly verbatim Bush.

Question: So, how does VandeHei come by his journalistic superpowers?

Answer: Until a few days ago he was covering the Kerry campaign, so Bush’s fibs about Kerry bounce right off him.

When the Post moved VandeHei from Kerry to Bush, it transferred Dana Milbank from Bush to Kerry to take up the slack. Post Assistant Managing Editor for National News Liz Spayd says the switch was made to bring a “fresh eye” to the paper’s coverage. “But it’s not like it’s permanent,” she says.

Such midcampaign switches, used by the Post in the last presidential campaign, should be encouraged throughout the press. Switches work especially well in the late days of a campaign as the slanders multiply: The reporters who know the smeared candidate are the best at telling truth from lie by deadline. And switches harness the power of the Stockholm Syndrome to the newspaper’s advantage when a reporter falls in love with “his” candidate.


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