Post mortem

A look at the Washington Post story that launched a week of partisan fury.

By Brendan Nyhan

Published September 28, 2002 10:56PM (EDT)

The partisan attack mill needs lots of grist, and this week, one single, somewhat misleading Washington Post article provided plenty. Dana Milbank's Wednesday dispatch was the source of the quote by President Bush that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., teed off on in his fiery speech on the Senate floor that day.

But Milbank's story, suggesting that the Bush administration has used the war for political purposes, took the quote from Bush somewhat out of context. "Four times in the past two days," the story said, "Bush has suggested that Democrats do not care about national security, saying on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Senate is 'not interested in the security of the American people.'" What actually happened was that, when discussing the dispute over the legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security, Bush said "the House responded" to his plea for weaker civil service protections than Democrats support, "but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."

This, of course, is wildly unfair -- even Andrew Sullivan wrote that "the president went over the line." But Bush did go on to say that "people are working hard in Washington to get it right in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats" and that "this isn't a partisan issue." Plus he was clearly referring to Democrats in the Senate, not the entire party as Milbank implies, and the three similar statements he made Monday and Tuesday were not as strong as the one Milbank cites as representative.

Working from the story, Daschle presented Bush's quote with little context, simply saying, "[T]he president is quoted in the Washington Post this morning as saying that the Democratic-controlled Senate is 'not interested in the security of the American people.'" Some took this to mean Daschle thought Bush was referring to the debate over Iraq (Milbank's story appeared to imply as much -- it ran under a headline stating "Iraq Dominates" in Bush's speeches, and failed to clarify the homeland security context), but there's no clear evidence that Daschle implied this -- his speech appeared to refer to the larger "war" on terror. (He later rejected allegations that he took the quote out of context.)

Milbank's article also included this detail as its second piece of evidence: "At a fundraiser for GOP House candidate Adam Taff in Kansas Monday, Vice President Cheney said security would be bolstered if Taff were to defeat Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.). 'Cheney talks about Iraq at congressional fund-raiser/ Electing Taff would aid war effort,' read the headline in the Topeka Capital-Journal."

Daschle then quoted that headline in his speech, which criticized President Bush and Republicans for politicizing the war on terror. "And then I listened to reports of the vice president," he said. "The vice president comes to fundraisers, as he did just recently in Kansas. The headline written in the paper the next day about the speech he gave to that fundraiser was, 'Cheney Talks About War; Electing Taff Would Aid War Effort.'"

But it's unfair for Milbank or Daschle to characterize what Cheney said on the basis of a headline. If his words were noteworthy, they should be quoted directly. It's likely that this didn't happen because the story in question did not provide any direct quotes in support of this claim; instead, it summarzed Cheney's remarks as follows: "Cheney said the administration's efforts would be helped by sending Taff to Congress. Taff is a Navy veteran running against two-term incumbent Democrat Dennis Moore, and Cheney said Taff's military experience would be an asset."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer stated during his press briefing Wednesday that what Cheney actually said was this: "President Bush and I are very grateful for the opportunity to serve our country. We thank you for your support -- not just for our efforts, but for candidates like Adam Taff, who will make a fine partner for us in the work ahead." Fleischer called this "hardly the stuff of politics."

A transcript of Cheney's speech is not available, but Kansas City Star political correspondent Steve Kraske (who covered the speech) told me that, after reviewing his tape, nothing in Cheney's remarks about Taff struck him as "particularly political in any way." They were the sort of "perfunctory" comments one hears at political fundraisers.

Other than the quote Fleischer highlighted, Kraske provided me with an exact transcript of the only other passage he located that seemed relevant (which he highlighted in his follow-up story on the controversy Friday). "I look forward to welcoming Adam to the nation's capital come January," Cheney said. "He'll be vital in helping us meet the key priorities for the nation in terms of winning the war on terror, strengthening the economy and defending our homeland." This is a rote recitation of the administration's priorities that did not even offend Moore, according to Kreske. Milbank's characterization of Cheney as claiming "security would be bolstered" if Taff won seems unsupported.

Moreover, the second part of the headline that Milbank quoted ("Electing Taff would aid war effort") never actually ran in the print edition of the paper as the "in the Topeka Capital-Journal" phrasing implies. Milbank told me that he quoted what he saw on the paper's Web site Tuesday. Here's what happened: The Capital-Journal ran an Associated Press story on Cheney's visit in its Tuesday print edition. According to executive editor Will Kennedy, the subhead Milbank quoted (which came from the original AP headline) was inadvertently added to the online version of this story and remained there until it was removed Wednesday morning. Kennedy said his paper asked the Post to set the record straight that day. After I called national editor Liz Spayd to raise the issue and she told me Thursday that a clarification would run Friday, it did.

Friday, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., picked up on the Milbank/Daschle claim in a New York Times Op-Ed. "In a recent speech in Kansas," he wrote, "Vice President Dick Cheney also entered the act, saying that our nation's security efforts would be stronger if a Republican candidate for Congress were elected." While this is better than quoting a newspaper headline, it is still fundamentally misleading to cite as evidence of the administration politicizing the war.

Politicians would be wise to verify their evidence and understand its context when making harsh allegations, rather than lazily basing their remarks on news reports. Because, as this case shows, reporters don't always get it right.

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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