Republicans have attempted to spin the first presidential debate in favor of President George W. Bush by distorting a statement Senator John Kerry made during that debate. Mainstream journalists have gone along with the spin, quoting Bush's mischaracterization of Kerry's debate remark without refutation.
Here's what Kerry said:
No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.
But if and when you do it, Jim [Lehrer, the debate moderator], you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.
But following the debate, President George W. Bush distorted Kerry's "global test" remark to claim that Kerry "would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions." The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign launched a new advertisement called "Global Test," which claims that Kerry would "seek permission from foreign governments before protecting America. As Kerry's statement made clear, he was not advocating giving other countries "veto power" over U.S. military decisions; rather, Kerry said he would preemptively act to protect the U.S., while stressing that we must demonstrate the necessity of having done so.
Many in the press failed to note the distinction between the Bush campaign's mischaracterization of Kerry's remarks and what Kerry actually said:
- In an October 3 Washington Post article, reporter Dan Balz reported that "Bush has seized on a statement the Massachusetts Democrat made in the debate that U.S. decisions to launch military action needed to meet a 'global test' of acceptability among major allies, and the campaign launched a new TV ad on the same theme." While Balz noted that "Kerry immediately responded with an ad describing the charge as a willful distortion of Kerry's position," he failed to explain how the ad was a distortion.
- On the October 3 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, National Review editor Kate O'Beirne summarized the Bush campaign's depiction of Kerry's statement and described a new Bush-Cheney campaign ad based on that depiction. While host Tim Russert noted that "the Kerry campaign is on with a rebuttal saying he's lying about the debate," Russert, like Balz, neglected to point out how the ad is a distortion of Kerry's statement.
- New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, in an October 3 article, reported merely on "Mr. Kerry's suggestion in the debate that he might not engage in a pre-emptive war without putting it to a 'global test.'"
- An October 3 article in the Chicago Tribune, by national correspondents Mark Silva and Jill Zuckman, reported only Bush's version of Kerry's statement: "Bush honed his post-debate assault with a new label Saturday for Kerry's suggestion that the United States meet a "global test" before deploying military forces pre-emptively."
- On the October 3 edition of CNN Sunday Morning, CNN anchor Drew Griffin misrepresented Kerry's statement while reporting Bush's distorted attack: "At a campaign stop in Ohio he [Bush] brought up a Kerry comment from their first debate, when Kerry said any preemptive strike by the U.S. should pass a global test. The president says that's not the way to go."
- During the "Talking Points Memo" segment on the October 1 edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly played the video of Kerry's statement from the debate, presenting it in its proper context. However, immediately following the video clip, O'Reilly asserted that Bush "pounced on Mr. Kerry's error, and he's right." O'Reilly then echoed Bush's mischaracterization of Kerry's statement, saying, "Most Americans don't want a global litmus test when our lives are at stake."
- Bill O'Reilly was not the only FOX News Channel host to refer to Kerry's statement as an error. On the October 3 edition of FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday, Brit Hume mirrored Bush campaign senior adviser Karl Rove's assessment that Kerry's remark was "very big" and "a blunder." The "'global test' phrase was -- may turn out, when we look back on this later, to have been the gaffe of the night, if there was one," Hume said.