Media complicit on political truth-shading
   by  Gene Lyons    Original link

Most people assume that all politicians shade the truth.

Most people are right. Seeking bipartisan symmetry, journalists assume
that the exaggerations and misstatements split roughly down the middle,
with each party in our fallen world of Democrats and Republicans vending
pleasing fictions to supporters. The idea of "balance" makes life easier
for reporters two ways, allowing them to pose as morally superior to
quibbling politicians while shielding them from accusations of partisanship,
particularly the dread "liberal bias." But what if, as Huck Finn might have
said, it just ain’t so? What if one party addresses voters in ordinary
politician-speak while the other abandons truth-telling altogether?
Because that’s what’s happening during the 2004 campaign.

Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards apply standard spin
to their formulations for the nation’s future while their Republican
rivals have dragged political discourse to unprecedented depths of
mendacity. Only weeks before the election, the Bush/Cheney campaign
resembles a gigantic lab experiment designed to measure exactly how
poorly informed and gullible the American people are. Journalists
trying to act as neutral observers are having a hard time figuring out
how to deal with it.

During the vice-presidential debate, for example, Dick Cheney accused
Edwards of being a no-show in the U.S. Senate. "I’m up in the Senate
most Tuesdays when they’re in session," Cheney said dismissively. "The
first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."

It was a palpable hit, the authoritative older man dismissing his rival as a
feckless puppy. Except that it was not true. Cheney presided over the
Senate exactly twice in four years. Within an hour of the vice president’s
statement, photos of Cheney and Edwards together at a Washington
prayer breakfast were all over the Internet. Edwards also had escorted
Sen. Liddy Dole, R-N. C., to be sworn in by Cheney. The two men
once appeared on the same "Meet the Press" broadcast.

So the press, which flayed Al Gore for getting the cost of his dog’s
arthritis medication wrong in 2000, was all over Cheney, right? Not
quite. Many readers probably are learning about it here for the first
time. During postdebate commentary on MSNBC, Tim Russert actually
praised Cheney’s putdown. Next day, he went on the "Today" show to say
he’d introduced Cheney and Edwards on the "Meet the Press" set.

Trivial, yes. But also highly revelatory. Why wasn’t it a big deal? Two
reasons: The VP debate got shunted aside in favor of the upcoming
presidential encounter, and the media hesitate to offend vengeful
Republicans, but don’t fear Democrats.

Less trifling was Cheney’s brazen denial that he’d ever claimed Iraq
played a role in the 9/11 attacks. That must have shocked the 62 percent
of Republicans who reportedly believe Saddam Hussein and Osama bin
Laden were in cahoots. To his credit, Russert played video clips of the
vice president strongly insinuating Iraqi complicity in 9/11. But the media
haven’t exactly emphasized it. Hey, it’s just another war lie. No biggie.

Then there’s President Bush himself, who’s setting records for duplicity
during this campaign. Yes, Kerry exaggerated when he said the
administration forced Gen. Eric Shinseki to retire for telling Congress
it would take hundreds of thousands of soldiers to occupy Iraq. They
actually undercut him much earlier, when the advice was still private.
That’s how you know Bush was fibbing when he said all the generals
backed his excellent Iraqi plan.

Did the National Journal call John Kerry the "most liberal" U.S.
senator? No, he finished 11 th. (Edwards was 27 th.) Did Kerry vote for
higher taxes 350 times, as Bush TV ads state, or 98 times, as Bush
claimed in debate? Neither. Both figures are padded by up to 16
procedural votes on the same bill.

Did the Duelfer Report by Bush’s own Iraqi arms inspector conclude that
United Nations inspections "weren’t working," as he claimed? No, it
concluded Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction after 1991,
and no capacity to make them.

Are staggering budget deficits mainly caused by recession and war? No,
most economists say Bush’s tax cuts account for between half and
two-thirds of the shortfall. Has non-defense discretionary spending
under Bush increased by a mere 1 percent a year as he stated? No, the
actual figure is 8 percent, twice as fast as it rose under Bill Clinton.

Does Kerry’s health insurance plan amount to a government takeover of
medical care, as Bush asserts? No, it would further expand Medicaid to
children, but mostly it strengthens employer based private insurance.
Has Kerry proposed $2.2 trillion in new spending, as Bush asserted
during their second debate? Bush exaggerates by a multiple of roughly
13; independent estimates peg his own spending plans far higher than
Kerry’s. Does Bush own a timber company, as Kerry claimed and Bush
laughingly denied? He does, although his stake in it is so small he
probably forgot.

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author
and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

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