BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After the first debate, the TV pundits said Kerry crushed Bush, and later the polls confirmed that. After the next 3 debates, when the talking heads claimed a winner, they often missed the mark, and the viewing public knew it. Throughout the process, there was another debate, both inside and outside the media, over what the media ought to be doing. Prognosticating seemed to be just another kind of filler, as were the often-unreliable instant polls and certainly the forays into the spin room. The anchors all conceded that point, even as they jawboned with campaign mouthpieces. And, since last month's 60 Minutes scandal over forged memos, TV has a growing credibility problem. During Wednesday's debate, Kerry cited the findings of two networks that found that the president had distorted his health care plan, and the president quipped-- [TAPE PLAYS]
GEORGE W. BUSH: In all due respect, I'm not so sure-- it's credible to quote leading news organizations about-- well, never mind. Anyway-- [LAUGHS] [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the fact is, the media actually did shed some light on the debates by doing more of what they should have been doing all along --checking the claims, the accusations, the facts of the candidates. CNN. [TAPE PLAYS]
JOHN KERRY: Five hundred thousand kids lost after school programs because of your budget.
WOMAN: Wrong. Bush did propose cutting 400 million in after school funding in his 2004 budget, but Congress refused to go along. No children lost their program.
GEORGE W. BUSH: He's proposed two point two trillion dollars of new spending, and yet...
WOMAN: Bush was using an old figure from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. An analysis by the non-partisan Concord Coalition says Kerry's proposals will cost 1.3 trillion. That group put the very same price tag on the proposals of George W. Bush. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The only problem is, simply listing the lies is not enough, because some lies matter more than others.
BOB GARFIELD: On October 8th, a memo from the political director of ABC News, Mark Halperin, was posted on the Drudge Report. Halperin wrote, "We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides equally accountable when the facts don't warrant that." "And," he noted, "Kerry distorts, takes out of context and makes mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win." On the other hand, Halperin added, the Bush campaign is attempting to, quote, "win the election by destroying Senator Kerry, at least partly through distortions. The right-leaning media took Halperin's call for a more honest accounting of the president's statements as proof of ABC's liberal bias. Others, like Washington Monthly writer Kevin Drum, took up the gauntlet thrown down by Mark Halperin and ran with it. He joins me now. Kevin, welcome to On the Media.
KEVIN DRUM: Hello, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now you came up with a mathematical equation, or at least a system, to quantify the lies of the second debate. Can you explain your methodology?
KEVIN DRUM: First, I looked at each statement to see if there were any factual errors, and I ranked that from 1 to 3 points. Then I looked to see if there was a real intent to deceive as opposed to just being a small exaggeration, again, gave it 1 to 3 points. And then I added that up, and I multiplied it by the importance. Obviously, Iraq and the conduct of the war on terrorism -- those are important issues. Taxes is a very important issue. On the other hand, Bush made a misstatement about wetlands protection. That's just not an important issue in the campaign. So I multiplied the whole thing by either 1, 2 or 3. And I came up with a score for each misstatement.
BOB GARFIELD: Now this -- probably the central reason Halperin was accused by some on the right of political bias is that his evaluation is that the Bush attacks on Kerry are more distorted and twisted and out of context than the Kerry distortions about Bush's record. Does your calculus verify Halperin's conclusion?
KEVIN DRUM: Yeah. Yeah, it did. You know, I sort of forgive politicians for minor lies. You sort of expect that. But George Bush had, by my count, seven, you know, very substantial misstatements in the second debate, and Kerry didn't have any. Kerry had some misstatements, but they were all fairly minor. Bush had the minor ones, but he also had a lot of very serious misstatements as well.
BOB GARFIELD: So [LAUGHS] -- in the Kevin Drum Candor-tron, Bush's score was 118 to Kerry's 51. What are the big lies that you caught Bush in that pushed his numbers so high?
KEVIN DRUM: He said at one point, and this sounds kind of wonkish, but he said non-homeland, non-defense discretionary spending was rising 15 percent a year when he got into office, and he's wrestled it down to one percent a year. Now, first of all, on a factual basis, that's way wrong. The figures are very clear that that kind of spending has increased way more under George Bush than under any president since LBJ. And then on the second thing, was he really trying to deceive? You know, he absolutely was. I mean he's trying to imply that he's gotten spending down. And he clearly hasn't. That's a big lie -- it's both factually incorrect and clearly deceitful.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course the question we're most interested in is the press's vigilance about all of this. It seems to me that in the past three or four weeks, the news organizations, including even the TV networks, have made pretty giant strides in, in vetting the accuracy and the context of the candidates' various charges. Is this my imagination, or have we come a long way in a very short time?
KEVIN DRUM: No, I, I think you're right. Partly right. I've been very impressed with the amount of fact-checking in the networks, newspapers, organizations like FactCheck.org -- they've done a great job of going through all the misstatements, giving the context and so forth. The one thing they haven't done, and that's what I was trying to do with my analysis, was they haven't put it all together to try to give you a, a real indication of who's lying more than the other. But, I'll tell you something -- I think that the increased attention paid to this might have made a difference, because I did notice that you know, from the second debate, I pulled out 5 pretty serious lies of George Bush's that were domestic policy, and I thought they'd all come up in the third debate, and you know what -- they didn't. He softened them all.
BOB GARFIELD: And John Kerry stopped using the 200 billion dollar figure that he had been citing in the first two debates as the cost of the war in Iraq to date. That was not in evidence in this week's debate between the candidates.
KEVIN DRUM: That's right. So I think this stuff does matter. I think it does make a difference.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Halperin made his assessment and was accused of political bias. Let me ask you about your political bias. I'm just going to take a wild guess and say that you were sort of pre-destined to find out that Bush is a bigger liar than Kerry, no?
KEVIN DRUM: I actually did my honest best to be as rigorous as I could with both guys. I'm a liberal. Obviously, I'm more likely to think that something George Bush says is a serious lie. You know, I'd like to see an organization like FactCheck or the Washington Post or somebody who's more neutral than I am go through and do the same kind of thing that I did. You know, don't just write a story listing a few things each guy said, but go ahead -- give 'em a score, and if one guy is lying more than the other, just say it.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe for every election from this point forward, we'll be looking at the Drum Score as reported in the New York Times, Reuters and everywhere else, huh?
KEVIN DRUM: So you think I should get a patent on it and maybe I can get royalties in future elections?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Like-- yah. [LAUGHS]. Kevin, thanks very much.
KEVIN DRUM: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Kevin Drum is a writer for Washington Monthly.