Today we saw an article in The New York Times explaining that Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are squabbling about, among other things, Romney's record on fightin' crime in Massachusetts:

“I think that Governor Romney is trying to distract attention from what is clearly a mistake that he made, but the other big mistake that he made was crime went up,” Mr. Giuliani said. “Violent crime and murder went up while he was governor, and I think that that is something that talks about not just an isolated mistake, it talks about a series of mistakes.” The Romney campaign responded that federal crime statistics show that the violent crime rate in Massachusetts, which includes not only murder but also crimes like assault, dropped 7 percent during his tenure.

And in The Washington Post, we also saw the same thing:

But his toughest comments were reserved for Romney. "Nobody thought of him as a fiscal conservative," Giuliani said. "People did think of me as a fiscal conservative. Romney says he tried to lower taxes. I give him credit for that. But he never accomplished it. I did accomplish it. . . . He wasn't particularly good at reducing crime. I was the most effective in the country at reducing crime. Murder went up when he was governor. Robbery went up. Violent crimes went up."

Romney accused Giuliani of mangling his facts. "He's got a real problem checking facts," Romney said during a Sunday afternoon interview, arguing that violent crime in Massachusetts declined 7 percent while he was governor. Giuliani aides immediately challenged that assertion.

Can you tell what's missing?

If I were an editor at one of these fine papers, and my reporters turned in one of these stories, I'd tell them to figure out whether Romney or Giuliani is telling the truth. You won't find it in either story. So which is it?

My curiosity piqued, I did something crazy: I typed "Massachusetts crime statistics" into Google. And you know what I found? This! A page on the state's web site with their crime reports!

So what's the answer? Statistics aren't yet available (at least not there) for 2006, so what we have are data from 2002, the year Romney got elected (which should serve as the baseline), plus 2003 through 2005. And what do we find? In 2003, total crime declined 3.1% from the previous year, and violent crime declined 1.7%. In 2004, total crime declined by 4.5%, and violent crime declined by 3.2%. In 2005, total crime declined by 2.9%, but violent crime increased by 4.75%.

As for the murders Giuliani mentioned, in 2002, before Romney took office, there were 171 murders in Massachusetts. Then there were 139 in 2003, back up to 167 in 2004, and 175 in 2005. Without knowing what happened in 2006, it appears, then, that on the whole we can say that Mitt Romney's tenure saw some decreases in overall crime, but the murder rate was about the same when he left as when he came in.

Was that so hard?

Here's the thing: Politicians lie. The only thing that will keep them from lying is if they know they'll pay a price. And the only ones who can make them pay that price are the reporters whose job it is to tell us what's going on. Unless reporters are willing to step in when candidates are arguing over "facts" and tell you which side is being honest, there is absolutely no incentive for the politicians to tell the truth. Rudy may well now be saying, "Hell, how about next time we just say crime increased on Romney's watch by a thousand percent? Who's going to stop us?"

UPDATE: Succumbing to the awesome power of TAPPED, the Washington Post included in this morning's paper a fact-check of Guiliani and Romney's claims.

--Paul Waldman