Spin Buster

May 27, 2004

So, here's how you cover a campaign speech: The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. It's one of journalism's fundamentals. Tell us what he said, tell us what she said, and you're covered, right?

Well, no. Given the amount of spin this election year, the old rules don't apply any more. Campaign Desk herewith proposes a new ground rule: "He said/she said/we said."

Consider John Kerry's rain-soaked speech yesterday in Seattle, where a crowd of 2,000 stood, sans umbrellas (an apparent security hazard), for two hours to hear the candidate talk about energy, among other things.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Chris McGann quotes Kerry as saying "today we have a president and [an] oil administration that is entirely narrow vision, entirely focused on fossil fuel, oil and drilling."

Back in the office, McGann calls Tracey Schmitt, regional spokeswoman for Bush-Cheney '04 for a response, the second half of the old journalism equation.

Schmitt delivers, and McGann dutifully transcribes: "John Kerry ... is now inserting himself into the debate in a blatant display of political opportunism. Senator Kerry supported higher gas taxes at least 11 times, including a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax."

Trouble is, that's incredibly misleading. As FactCheck.org has thoroughly documented, Kerry's support for a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax occurred a decade ago and he never voted for, or sponsored, legislation to impose such a tax. (FactCheck cites details of the votes, along with the fact that economist Gregory Mankiw, currently chairman of Bush's Council of Advisors, also once supported higher gasoline taxes while at Harvard University.) Maybe McGinn just wanted to get home and into some dry clothes, and didn't take those few extra minutes to check Schmitt's claim. Too bad for readers of the Post-Intelligencer.

With a variety of Internet research tools readily at hand, it has never been easier for reporters to draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way. The bottom line on this kind of reporting doesn't have to be Spinmeisters, 1, Accuracy, 0. But it was this morning, in Seattle.

--Susan Q. Stranahan

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