Even after Wash. Post "Fact Checker" called ad "dishonest" and "deceptive," paper uncritically quoted it


A Washington Post article uncritically reported a McCain campaign ad's false assertion that Sen. Barack Obama's " 'one accomplishment' on education has been to support 'comprehensive sex education' for kindergarteners," even after Michael Dobbs, the Post's own "Fact Checker," wrote that the McCain campaign's claim is "wrong," and that the ad is "dishonest" and "deceptive."

In a September 15 Washington Post article about the presidential candidates' positions on education, staff writer Maria Glod uncritically reported a portion of an ad by Sen. John McCain's campaign that mischaracterized Sen. Barack Obama's position on sex education. Glod wrote: "A McCain television advertisement says Obama's 'one accomplishment' on education has been to support 'comprehensive sex education' for kindergarteners." Glod did not note that the ad's assertion is false, even though the Post's own "Fact Checker," Michael Dobbs, wrote on September 11 that "[t]he McCain ad is wrong when it claims -- in a voice dripping with sarcasm -- that Obama's 'one accomplishment' in the education field was a sex education bill for kindergartners." Dobbs also called the ad "dishonest" and "deceptive."

Contrary to the characterization of the bill that Glod uncritically quoted, Dobbs wrote in the September 11 article headlined, "McCain's 'Education' Spot Is Dishonest, Deceptive," that "the principal purpose of the bill" Obama supported -- but did not sponsor -- was to make children "aware of the risk of inappropriate touching and sexual predators":

The McCain ad is wrong when it claims -- in a voice dripping with sarcasm -- that Obama's "one accomplishment" in the education field was a sex education bill for kindergartners. While it is true that Obama supported the bill, he was not one of the sponsors. As far as kindergartners were concerned, the principal purpose of the bill was to make them aware of the risk of inappropriate touching and sexual predators. Other states, including California and Massachusetts, have passed similar legislation.


Nobody expects television ads to be fair and objective analyses of public policy. Almost by definition, the ads are partisan sales pitches, designed to promote one political brand while running down the rival brand. But they should not misrepresent the record of the other side and should clearly distinguish quotes from nonpartisan news sources from standard political rhetoric. The McCain "Education" ad fails this test.

In addition, FactCheck.org called the McCain ad's assertion "simply false," and also noted that Obama "can properly claim a number of real accomplishments" on education:

A McCain-Palin campaign ad claims Obama's "one accomplishment" in the area of education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners." But the claim is simply false, and it dates back to Alan Keyes' failed race against Obama for an open Senate seat in 2004.

Obama, contrary to the ad's insinuation, does not support explicit sex education for kindergarteners. And the bill, which would have allowed only "age appropriate" material and a no-questions-asked opt-out policy for parents, was not his accomplishment to claim in any case, since he was not even a cosponsor -- and the bill never left the state Senate.


The ad claims the bill was Obama's "one accomplishment." This is doubly false. Obama was neither a cosponsor nor a sponsor of the sex education bill, which never got past "go" in the Senate. So it was not an "accomplishment" at all. Furthermore, Obama can properly claim a number of real accomplishments.

He was a cosponsor of what became the Chicago Education Reform Act of 2003, which allowed for an increase in the number of Chicago charter schools and required the Chicago Board of Education to enter into a formal partnership with the Chicago Teachers Union to "advance the Chicago Public Schools to the next level of education reform." He was also a cosponsor of a bipartisan bill to help Illinois high school graduates be eligible for in-state college tuition rates even if they weren't U.S. citizens.

On the federal level, Obama sponsored three amendments to The America COMPETES Act, which became law in 2007. All three amendments were passed in the Senate by unanimous consent and became law. One amendment proposed language that would create a mentoring program for women and minority groups during their studies in Department of Energy programs. He also proposed language to support summer learning programs and boost their math curricula. And he put forward a requirement that women and minorities be represented in the President's Science and Technology Summit. Whether or not one considers any of these measures earth-shaking, they're accomplishments nonetheless.

From Glod's September 15 Washington Post article:

McCain is squarely for teacher merit pay based on test scores; Obama supports pay for performance but only in cooperation with unions. Obama supports a significant expansion of early childhood programs. McCain supports the creation of more online schools and classes.

In recent days, as millions of parents sent their children back to school, the campaigns kicked up the rhetoric on education, each accusing the other of lacking a reform record. A McCain television advertisement says Obama's "one accomplishment" on education has been to support "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners. Recently in Norfolk, Obama said McCain "has not done one thing to improve the quality of public education in our country, not one real law or proposal or initiative. Nothing. It has not been a priority for him."

The next iteration of the No Child Left Behind law, now overdue in Congress, could have major effects for millions of students and teachers. The law marked an unprecedented federal foray into public schools, requiring a dramatic expansion of testing. It aims to boost the achievement of students from poor families who have long trailed those who come from the middle and upper classes.

Posted In
Education, Elections
The Washington Post
Maria Glod
Barack Obama, John McCain, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.