Networks persisted with façade of "balance" in post-debate fact checks

››› ››› GABE WILDAU & JEREMY CLUCHEY

After the October 8 presidential debate, TV networks followed the pattern of false equivalence that Media Matters for America documented after both the first presidential and the vice presidential debates (here, here, and here). In the interest of "balance," ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN equated Senator John Kerry's accurate but incomplete figures on job and education spending and a technically inaccurate statement about Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki's retirement with President George W. Bush's falsehoods about Kerry's health care and tax plans and about inroads the United States has made in dismantling Al Qaeda.

NBC and MSNBC

On NBC (and later on MSNBC), anchor Brian Williams began by refereeing "two competing claims from Senator Kerry and President Bush" on jobs: Kerry's claim that "[t]he president has presided over the economy where we've lost 1.6 million jobs" and Bush's claim that "[w]e just got a report that said over the past 13 months we've created 1.9 million new jobs. We're growing." Williams implied that Kerry was being deceptive by using a number that applies to "just one category" of jobs:

WILLIAMS: Now those figures are both correct, but both only partly so. You heard the figure from Senator Kerry, 1.6 million jobs. That applies to private-sector jobs only. That's just one category. The 1.9 million new jobs the president mentions were created, he says, over the past 13 months. The latest and best job figures show that since President Bush took office in January 2001, that despite those 1.9 million new jobs, there has still been a net loss, over and above that, of 821,000 jobs.

But "private-sector jobs" is not just one "category" of jobs. It includes all non-government jobs, and it's arguably a more important measure of a president's economic stewardship than total non-farm employment, which Williams used to calculate the 821,000 figure. Non-farm employment includes public-sector employment, which depends primarily on political decisions rather than on the state of the economy. As The New York Times noted in a June 2003 article about the employment situation: "Government cuts have caused overall employment to decline since April. ... but the private sector is typically a better predictor of the economy's future, analysts say."

Next, Williams singled out as a distortion Kerry's true statement that Bush "didn't fund No Child Left Behind [NCLB]." Williams declared: "The truth is that education funding has increased during the Bush administration, though it has not lived up to the levels that the No Child Left Behind legislation called for."

In fact, NCLB is underfunded. The law places significant demands on schools, and when Congress passed the law, it decided how much money schools would need to fulfill those demands. A Democratic staff report from the House Appropriations Committee calculates that the fiscal year 2004 budget alone provided $8 billion less for NCLB than Congress authorized when it passed the law. It's not false or deceptive to claim that Bush "didn't fund" NCLB if he signed a budget that failed to provide all the money the bill promised.

Apparently trying to evoke "balance," Williams placed these dubious fact checks of Kerry alongside two major distortions by Bush. Bush claimed that "900,000 small businesses will be taxed under his [Kerry's] plan" to roll back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans "because most small businesses are Subchapter S corps or limited partnerships, and they pay tax at the individual income tax level." Williams pointed out: "[I]n truth, according to a reputable think tank, The Tax Policy Center, that 900,000 number is inflated. Mr. Bush has doubled it. They say it would negatively affect about 470,000 small businesses in this country."

Next, Williams addressed the exchange about Bush's timber holdings but never mentioned that Bush was not telling the truth:

WILLIAMS: And you heard both men joke about timber, the lumber business and wood. That all came out of the fact that the president once owned a small share of a timber business. According to the website FactCheck.org, he reported $84 of business income; that was back in 2001. The joke was about this. That would have qualified him as an American small business owner.

Williams said "both men joke[d]" about timber, but in fact Kerry never joked about it. Explaining how Bush's attack on his tax plan inflated the number of small businesses supposedly affected by the rollback of the upper-income tax cuts, Kerry explained: "The president got $84 from a timber company that owns, and he's counted as a small business." Bush denied ever holding timber assets, but Bush's claim was false: he did hold such assets, and he would have been counted as a small business by his own standard, as Kerry claimed. Following the debate, FactCheck.org clarified its earlier article on the $84, noting that "the $84 in Schedule C income was from Bush's Lone Star Trust, which is actually described on the 2001 income-tax returns as an 'oil and gas production' business. The Lone Star Trust now owns 50% of the tree-growing company, but didn't get into that business until two years after the $84 in question." But Williams never mentioned that Bush had flatly denied a true statement; nor did he mention that Kerry was accurate in criticizing Bush for using a misleading attack on Kerry's tax plan.*

CNN

On CNN, senior political analyst Bill Schneider similarly placed Bush's misleading claim that "75 percent of them [Al Qaeda members] have been brought to justice" alongside Kerry's true statement about 1.6 million private-sector jobs. He then contrasted Kerry's inaccurate claim regarding the retirement of former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki with Bush's false claims about Kerry's health care plan.

Schneider pointed out that the CIA estimates 75 percent of "the two dozen or so" Al Qaeda leaders known "as of September 11, 2001, have been killed or captured," while recent estimates show, Schneider noted, that Al Qaeda "may have as many as 18,000 potential operatives."

In an October 3 interview on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, host Blitzer asked national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to put that 75 percent figure in context. She indicated that the administration does not even know how many leaders that figure represents:

RICE: We have broken up 75 percent of the Al Qaeda known leadership. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia fully --

BLITZER: Well, when you say "75 percent," of how many leaders are we talking -- 75 percent of a quantity of what? 30, 25?

RICE: Of its known leadership.

BLITZER: But how many --

RICE: I would suspect that that's in the tens to hundreds -- tens to 100.

Following his fact check of Bush's Al Qaeda claim, Schneider repeated the dubious fact check of Kerry's "1.6 million jobs" claim that NBC and MSNBC also did. "The 1.6 million only refers to private sector jobs lost. The overall number of jobs lost since January 2001 is about half that, 821,000, according to numbers just released," Schneider said.

Next Schneider exposed Bush's false claim that "the federal government is going to run" Kerry's health care plan. In fact, Schneider pointed out: "[T]he government bureaucrats would not dictate or limit coverage by -- or choices of doctors, as President Bush suggests. Factcheck.org cites a study that says 97 percent of Americans under the Kerry plan would simply keep the health care plan that they now have."

Schneider contrasted Bush's distortion of Kerry's health care plan with Kerry's claim that the Bush administration "retired" Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki in retaliation for Shinseki's statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States would need "several hundred thousand" troops to secure postwar Iraq. Schneider called Kerry's claim "inaccurate," noting that Shinseki "served his full four-year term as Army chief of staff, and he didn't retire early. By the time he had made his comments on troop levels, it was already known that he wouldn't remain in his post beyond the normal four-year term."

Indeed, Shinseki's retirement was scheduled and his replacement announced -- "in a move widely viewed as an attempt to undercut Shinseki," according to The Washington Post -- well before he told Congress that "several hundred thousand" troops would be necessary to secure a post-war Iraq. But the public repudiation of Shinseki's estimate as "wildly off the mark" and "outlandish" by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz left Shinseki "publicly humiliated," according to a June 30, 2003, New Yorker article, and "sealed the end of his career," according to a May 10, 2004, ABC Nightline report. Shinseki's prediction before the Senate Armed Services Committee was substantially larger than the administration's projection and widely perceived as politically unacceptable. According to an October 9, 2003, Washington Post report, neither Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, nor anyone from the Office of the Secretary of Defense attended Shinseki's retirement ceremony in June 2003 -- "a breach of protocol that raised eyebrows across the service."

Vice President Dick Cheney was asked on NBC's Meet the Press about his "earlier dismissal" of Shinseki's prewar troop level prediction, according to The Washington Post on September 15, 2003. Cheney "vigorously defended" United States troop levels in Iraq and misrepresented Shinseki's statement, claiming Shinseki suggested a need for "several hundred thousand [troops] for several years." As The Washington Post pointed out the next day, "In fact, Shinseki had not mentioned 'several years' in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 25."

On October 5, L. Paul Bremer III, the former top U.S. official in Baghdad, added to the growing consensus that Shinseki's prediction for post-war troop levels in Iraq was indeed accurate. According to a New York Times article, Bremer "told private audiences that the United States did not send enough troops to Iraq to establish security after driving Saddam Hussein from power."

ABC

Anchor Peter Jennings and correspondent Jake Tapper exposed two Bush distortions: his false denial regarding the timber company and his claim that 75 percent of Al Qaeda "have been brought to justice" and placed them alongside Kerry's claim about Shinseki. ABC's discussion of the timber company distortion was more thorough than the network's discussion of either of the other two issues:

JENNINGS: First of all, there was this question of the president being accused by Senator Kerry of owning a timber company or having a part interest in a timber company and taking $84 in a tax rebate. Mr. Bush looked up and said, "I own a timber company?" We all sort of looked at one another and said, "Who was right?" Well, it turns out Senator Kerry was right. And here's how he figured it out that under the Republican definition and based on the president's federal income tax returns in 2001, he reported $84 of business income from his part-ownership of a timber growing enterprise. He shifted it in 2002 and 2003 when he reported his timber income as "royalties" on a different tax schedule.

Correction: 

FactCheck.org has clarified its earlier assertion that the $84 in question on Bush's 2001 tax return came from "his part ownership of a timber-growing enterprise." As explained above, the $84 came from Lone Star Trust, which was involved in oil and gas in 2001 and had not yet entered the timber industry. We corrected this item as soon as we saw FactCheck.org's clarification.

Stories/Interests
Media Ethics, 2004 Elections
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