Following the first presidential debate on September 30, ABC, MSNBC, and NBC appeared to equate President George W. Bush's false statement about the number of trained and combat-ready Iraqis with Senator John Kerry's estimate of the cost of the Iraq war at $200 billion, even though Kerry's tally is accurate when projected spending is included. The networks repeated their pattern of false equivalences in their coverage of the vice presidential debate October 5.
ABC implicitly equated a false statement by Vice President Dick Cheney about a central justification for the war with Senator John Edwards's assertion that the cost of the war was "$200 billion and counting." Meanwhile, MSNBC and NBC appeared to equate the same Cheney distortion with a statement by Edwards about Halliburton that was true but omitted relevant details.
ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper (appearing on ABC) and NBC anchor Brian Williams (appearing on NBC and, later, MSNBC) accurately exposed Cheney's false claim that "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9-11."
CHENEY: [video clip from debate] The senator's got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9-11.
WILLIAMS: But here is the vice president on [NBC's] Meet the Press one year ago, September 14 of 2003. He was asked to define "success" in Iraq.
CHENEY: [video clip from Meet the Press] We will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who've had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9-11.
TAPPER: Senator Edwards suggested that Vice President Cheney had suggested a link between Saddam Hussein and 9-11. Cheney disputed that, but if you go back and look at the videotape, Vice President Cheney many times did suggest a link between Mohamed Atta, one of the 9-11 hijackers, and Iraqi intelligence, so there was a link suggested.
But first, Tapper reported that Cheney corrected Edwards's assertion that the cost of the Iraq war was "$200 billion and counting." Tapper said "Vice President Cheney was correct" in saying that the cost of the war is between $120 billion and $130 billion. But Tapper failed to note that while only $120 billion has been spent thus far on the war, an additional $80 billion is expected to be spent (a small portion of which is designated for Afghanistan).
In fact, the Kerry-Edwards '04 practice of referring to the total projected cost of the Iraq war is consistent with how politicians, pundits, and reporters frequently discuss government spending. Rather than referring to the amount spent on defense or education so far this year, it is common practice to speak about the Pentagon's or the Education Department's total annual budget. Likewise, debate about the wisdom of President George W. Bush's tax cuts doesn't center on how much they have cost so far but rather on their total projected cost. Kerry and Edwards use the same principle in their discussion of the cost of the Iraq war; the real question is why reporters aren't doing the same.
In an apparent attempt at balance, NBC's Williams placed the Cheney fact check -- in which Cheney had offered misleading justifications for a war and then lied about what he had said -- side by side with a fact check of a statement by Edwards that Halliburton's multibillion-dollar no-bid contract to rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure was one reason for both his and Senator John Kerry's votes against the $87 billion supplemental appropriations bill for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan in October 2003:
EDWARDS: [video clip from debate] We also thought it was wrong to have a 20-billion-dollar fund out of which seven and a half billion was going to go to a no-bid contract for Halliburton, the vice president's former company. It was wrong then. It's wrong now.
WILLIAMS: Now those words there, "no-bid contract." That was the charge, and Senator Edwards used that same phrase many times tonight. The truth is more like nobody else could bid on that contract because no one else could do the work called for. According to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office [GAO], Halliburton in this case was the only company able to be, quote, "in a position to provide services within the required time given the urgency of the need on the ground in Iraq."
As FactCheck.org noted, a GAO report found that "the Army Corps of Engineers properly awarded a sole-source contract for rebuilding Iraq's oil infrastructure to the only contractor that was determined to be in a position to provide the services within the required time frame." But Edwards's actual statement -- that Halliburton received a no-bid contract -- is true. And despite GAO's report, questions about that contract remain. Cheney himself provided grounds for these suspicions since, as TIME magazine reported in its June 7 issue, his office had in fact "coordinated" the award of the no-bid contract, contrary to Cheney's earlier denials.