Post-debate fact checks struck false "balance" for the fourth time

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

In their "fact check" segments following the third and final presidential debate, broadcast and cable networks continued to juxtapose outright falsehoods by President George W. Bush with statements by Senator John Kerry that were in many cases accurate. Media Matters for America has documented this pattern following each debate here, here, and here).

ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN corrected Bush's false claims that he never said he wasn't worried about Osama bin Laden; that Kerry voted for 98 tax increases; and that Kerry voted against the homeland security bill.

In contrast, the networks flagged as incorrect Kerry's claims that since Bush gained office, five million people have lost their health insurance and 1.6 million people have lost their jobs; that Bush has not met with the Congressional Black Caucus; and that Bush's Medicare bill will result in a $139 billion windfall for pharmaceutical companies. But it is true that under the Bush administration, the number of people without health insurance has grown by five million and 1.6 million private-sector jobs have been lost; Bush has repeatedly turned down requests to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, and one study did find that Bush's Medicare bill would increase drug companies' profits by $139 billion.

ABC

ABC anchor Peter Jennings's and correspondent Jake Tapper's post-debate fact check consisted of two checks on Bush and two on Kerry. Jennings and Tapper called into question Kerry's claim that "1.6 million jobs [have been] lost [under Bush]":

JENNINGS: Senator Kerry claimed that 1.6 million jobs were lost in the Bush administration. Right or wrong?

TAPPER: 1.6 million private-sector jobs were lost, but when you take into account all the other sectors, it's actually a net loss of around 585,000 jobs under the Bush administration, not 1.6 million.

But here's what they did not report:

The 585,000 job loss figure that Tapper provided reflects gains in government jobs -- but Kerry was talking about the loss of private-sector jobs. As Media Matters for America has noted, the "private-sector jobs" category includes all non-government jobs, and is arguably a more important measure of a president's economic stewardship than total non-farm employment. 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."

Jennings and Tapper also questioned Kerry's claim that "This president [Bush] is the first president ever, I think, not to meet with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. This is a president who hasn't met with the Black Congressional [sic] Caucus. This is a president who has not met with the civil rights leadership of our country."

JENNINGS: And one other thing, Senator Kerry said that the president had never met with the black caucuses.

TAPPER: That is decidedly untrue. He has met with the Congressional Black Caucus at least two times. Kerry also said that President Bush had never met with civil rights leaders; that's also not true. President Bush met with the Urban League very recently.

[On-screen text: "Bush met with Congressional Black Caucus on at least two occasions: January 31, 2001 [and] February 25, 2004"]

Here's what they did not report:

While Tapper characterized Kerry's statement as "decidedly untrue," The Washington Post noted in an October 14 article that "Kerry's overall charge was correct." In the debate, Kerry stated, "This is a president who hasn't met with the Black Congressional [sic] Caucus," and Bush rarely has. The Post noted that Bush did meet with the Congressional Black Caucus on January 31, 2001 -- during his first two weeks in office -- but since then, he has repeatedly turned down requests to meet with them. According to the Post, "Caucus members have complained that not only has Bush refused to meet with them on specific issues, including his plans to attack Iraq, but also the White House often has not even responded to their letters." As for a second meeting, the Post reported that "Bush dropped by a meeting that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had with the caucus earlier this year."

Regarding Bush's record on meeting with civil rights groups including the NAACP, Bush has rejected four consecutive invitations to speak at the NAACP's annual convention and stated on July 9 that "he has a 'basically nonexistent' relationship with the NAACP's leadership," according to The Washington Post. The Post also noted that the NAACP has said that Bush is the first president since Warren G. Harding (president from 1921-23) who has not met with them during his time in office.

Jennings and Tapper disputed Bush's claim that Kerry "voted to increase taxes 98 times" and asserted that 98 was "a misleading number" because 43 of the 98 votes for tax increases would not actually have raised taxes. They also took issue with Bush's claim that Kerry voted against the homeland security bill. Tapper stated that Bush was "wrong" because while Kerry voted against some of the bill's measures that Bush supported during its creation, he "absolutely voted for the final passage of the bill."

CNN

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider began the network's fact check by challenging Bush's assertion that "I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden." Schneider showed a video clip from a March 2002 interview in which Bush said of bin Laden, "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Schneider then challenged Kerry's assertion that "five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country," claiming that while "Senator Kerry was correct about 5.2 million Americans did not -- more Americans did not have health insurance from 2001 to 2003. ... A sizable portion of that number may be new workers or immigrants who moved to the United States since Bush took office. And they may previously not have had health insurance."

Here's what Schneider did not report:

While Schneider's equivocal suggestion that many of the uninsured "may be new workers or immigrants who ... may previously not have had health insurance" could be true, an Economic Policy Institute issue brief published September 16, 2004, found that the increased number of uninsured Americans "was due primarily to the precipitous decline in employer-provided health coverage for workers and their dependents." The issue brief attributed "a significant part" of this decline in coverage to "the loss of jobs over the 2001 recession and jobless recovery."

Schneider then disputed Kerry's statement, "This is a president who hasn't met with the Black Congressional Caucus." He pointed out that "President Bush did meet twice, according to our research, with the Congressional Black Caucus." But Schneider neglected to mention that Bush has repeatedly turned down requests to meet with the group, as MMFA has noted above. Schneider then corrected Bush's claim that Kerry "voted to increase taxes 98 times," explaining, "That number is somewhat inflated because in addition to up or down votes on a piece of legislation to raise taxes, it includes all votes on those pieces of legislation, procedural votes, votes to end debate. So yes, there were 98 votes, but it wasn't 98 tax hikes."

MSNBC/NBC

In a post-debate fact check that aired on MSNBC and NBC, anchor Brian Williams questioned Kerry's charge that Bush has not met with the Congressional Black Caucus, leaving out the same key facts that MMFA addressed above. He also fact-checked two Kerry assertions about health care: that Kerry's plan would "cover all Americans" (the Kerry campaign estimates that his plan will cover 27 million of the 45 million uninsured Americans), and that Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan would provide a "$139 billion windfall profit to the drug companies." Williams reported that the figure Kerry mentioned (from a Boston University study) has been countered in a more recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study.

Williams added context to Bush's claim that Kerry said "terrorism can be reduced to a nuisance" by providing Kerry's full quote and explaining that Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under former President George H.W. Bush, had made a nearly identical remark. Williams also refuted Bush's claim that "I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden" by playing the clip where he said just that.

Williams's fact check corrected Kerry three times and Bush only twice -- but not because of a lack of material from Bush, who made numerous distortions that none of the stations' fact checks addressed. Here are some examples of Bush debate distortions that the fact check segments all missed:

  • Bush falsely claimed that "[m]ost of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans"; however, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 69.8 percent of Bush's tax cut went to the top 20 percent of earners, including 24.2 percent of the tax cut to the top 1 percent of wealthiest Americans.
  • Bush also wrongly stated that "three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice;" but his claim that three-quarters of the terror group's leadership having been killed or captured only includes a CIA estimate of the known leaders as of September 11, 2001. As MMFA has noted, not even the administration knows how many leaders that figure represents. In addition, The Christian Science Monitor reported on October 5 that as Al Qaeda's pre-9-11 leaders have been killed or captured, a "new wave" of Al Qaeda leadership has emerged from Pakistan, with numbers of new recruits on the rise since the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq.
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2004 Elections
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