Watching the ad watchers

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 30, 2004 3:49PM (EST)

The Bush re-election team rolled out another attack ad late last week, focusing on what the White House calls Sen. John Kerry's tax-and-spend past. Dubbed "Differences," the ad insists that if elected Kerry would enact a $900 billion tax increase, and he'd do it "his first 100 days" in office.

There's not much nuance to the 30-second spot. It doesn't suggest Kerry will introduce new taxes, or angle for new taxes. Instead, Kerry will raise taxes by $900 billion -- period -- and he'll do it by May 2005, which on its face seems undoable. President Bush couldn't even pass tax cuts, which politicians flock to, in his first 100 days in office.

For now, it's the job of the Kerry campaign to rebut what it thinks are unfair charges, and to point out Kerry has never endorsed any such tax scheme. But in recent years the press has made itself a referee of campaign ads, promising to sort out all the allegations for voters. So, revving up its "Ad Watch" engines, how has the press handled the tax claim about Kerry's first 100 days? Mostly they've just ignored the dubious charge.

That's what the Associated Press did last week in its dissection of the Bush ad. The piece dutifully reprinted the commercial's text, described the images, and then provided readers with an independent "analysis." The AP walked through how the Bush team came up with the dubious $900 billion figure (adding up the cost of a 10-year Kerry health proposal and then assumed new taxes would pay for it), and explains Kerry himself has never proposed any such tax massive increase. But completely left untouched was the ad's central theme that the tax cut would take effect in Kerry's first 100 days. And the claim couldn't be clearer, considering the final two take-away images that linger on the screen at the end of the commercial are "The First 100 Days" and "$900 billion."

The Washington Post did the same thing in Friday's paper. Outlining the new round of attacks on Kerry, the Post detailed the central charge and explained, "Kerry has called for a repeal of all Bush tax cuts benefiting those making more than $200,000 a year, but Kerry has not detailed his full budget plan, including additional tax cuts he mentioned during the primaries Therefore," the Post wrote," it is impossible to determine if Kerry would raise taxes by $900 billion as Bush claims."

But that only addresses half of the White House claim. What about the Bush's assertion it will happen within Kerry's "first 100 days"? Rather than take Bush/Cheney '04 to task, the Post simply ignores the accusation. The same was true with the Los Angeles Times' recent "Ad Watch", and a similar analysis in the Detroit Free Press.

But the New York Times did them all better. As the Daily Howler noted, the Times took it upon itself to rationalize the Bush campaign claim. Dissecting the "accuracy" of the ad, the Times pointed out Kerry himself has never proposed any $900 billion tax. But then the newspaper notes "the spot asserts that Mr. Kerry's "plan" would raise taxes by $900 billion over 10 years because his health care proposal is estimated to cost that much, and because he has vowed to reduce the deficit." [Emphasis added.]

"Raise taxes by $900 billion over 10 years?" That may have been a sensible, although unproven accusation, but that's not the one Republicans are making. They're saying Kerry's going to raise taxes by nearly 1 trillion dollars in just over three months. So why doesn't the Times analyze what's in the ads, instead of spinning a more palpable version for its readers?

There's nothing wrong with reporters playing the role of campaign ref, but they're going to have to do it with their eyes open.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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