Nit Picklering

A Dec. 10 wire story took a look at a recent Democratic debate and concluded that Democrats "sometimes leave out the facts" in their critiques of the Bush administration. For example: "[S]everal of the nine candidates criticized the tax cuts George W. Bush pushed through Congress. But none mentioned that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan . . . has cited those cuts as a reason for the recent economic growth." Shocking! Sources indicate that the candidates also failed to mention the Tuesday-evening chicken wings special at the Lucky Bar and my little brother's late guinea pig, creatively named Guinea.

Welcome to the exciting world of "Nit Picklering," a label devised by popular liberal blogger Atrios to honor Associated Press campaign reporter Nedra Pickler's invention of a new standard for honesty whereby a Democrat is lying every time his or her comments neglect to include literally the whole truth, whether or not the overlooked fact actually contradicts the claim in question.

Elsewhere in the same article, Pickler, a 28-year-old Washington-based reporter who covered the auto industry before moving to the campaign beat last January, took Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to task for telling the story of a New Hampshire couple whose water supply was rendered unsafe for drinking or showering due to the presence of a gasoline additive, MTBE, without noting that they now, in fact, had potable water from an alternate source. Was Kerry remiss? Certainly no more so than Pickler, who failed to mention that the senator's remarks came up as he was discussing the Bush administration's efforts to shield manufacturers of the toxic substance from lawsuits. (MTBE has a propensity for poisoning groundwater). A revised version of Pickler's story was released on the wires the next morning, now leading with the Kerry-bashing in the first paragraph, insinuating that the senator had inflicted emotional distress on the victims of his "dishonesty." Actual harms caused by the chemical didn't make the cut, however.

Pickler struck again on Dec. 13, charging that "when he criticizes Bush's links to [former Enron CEO Ken] Lay, [former Gov. Howard] Dean [D-Vt.] never mentions that Enron's mismanagement was not a result of the president's tax-cut package." Similarly, Dean never mentions that the No Child Left Behind Act was not responsible for the Iraq War. Apparently he's in the grips of a theory holding that some issues are unrelated. Fortunately, Pickler is around to correct his thinking.

Pickler made her distaste for Dean pretty clear with an Oct. 25 story castigating the former governor's inability to correctly spell "spondylolysis" (Microsoft Word's spell checker doesn't know it, either!), a type of vertebrae stress fracture from which Dean has suffered since his days as a high-school runner, and which rendered him ineligible for military service. She then noted that "Dean said he decided not to correct the problem because it would require an extensive operation with a long recovery time. But when he got his draft lottery number . . . he took his X-rays and a letter from his orthopedic surgeon to Fort Hamilton, an Army installation in Brooklyn, N.Y." -- thus winning the 2003 award for Creative Use of the Word "But" in Political Reporting. By inserting a single word, an innocuous fact was magically transformed into an insinuation of draft dodging. Ta-da!

David Gram, also of the AP, got into the action (perhaps inadvertently) with an article to which Pickler contributed on Dec. 28. Together, they informed us that "Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean criticizes President Bush for giving unneeded tax breaks, but as Vermont governor he supported a program critics say did much the same for corporations." This one carries a veneer of relevance, as it's at least all about taxes. On examination, however, you'll see that Dean's tax credits for Vermont businesses and Bush's massive income-tax cuts have nothing in common. And while Vermont's budget was regularly balanced during the Dean years, though it is the only state not legally required to do so, the United States is currently facing huge deficits, surely a relevant factor.

Pickler's tic is a source of amusement, but it also has quite serious ramifications. While most discussion of media bias focuses on elite outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, stories put out by The Associated Press form the backbone of national political coverage in the small- and medium-sized newspapers whose combined circulations far exceed the majors. These early campaign reports, moreover, set the larger story line that constrains later coverage of events. Once Al Gore got the "liar" label on the 2000 campaign trail, he was unable to shake it no matter how unfair the charges were or how much worse Bush's behavior was. This is a movie we've all seen before, and it doesn't have a happy ending.

And as is often the case, where the wires go, the major papers follow. To wit: a late Dec. 30 critique by Katherine Seelye of campaign ad in The New York Times for retired Gen. Wesley Clark. The spot shows footage of Clark winning a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but it "does not mention that just months before that ceremony, [Bill] Clinton's administration relieved General Clark of his command." Indeed, the ad also failed to comment on such topics as Clark's favorite food (popcorn), his tax plans (family friendly) or groundwater contamination (still troubling the good people of New Hampshire).

Pickler, meanwhile, returned from an apparent holiday vacation (no bylines between Dec. 15 and Jan. 2) to write a Jan. 4 article that revealed some problems with a more traditional concept of accuracy. In this piece, she managed to misquote Dean in such a way as to turn a perfectly true statement -- "I opposed the Iraq War; with the exception of [Rep.] Dennis [Kucinich (D-Ohio)] and [former Sen.] Carol [Moseley Braun (D-Ill.)], everybody else supported it" -- into a false one -- "I opposed the Iraq War when everybody else up here was for it." After howls of protest from Dean-friendly bloggers, the AP ran a correction noting the error. But, to apply the Pickler method myself, the correction failed to note the wider critique of its author's unorthodox journalistic methods and transparent bias.

While Pickler herself has given us no clear examples of Picklering since December, her AP colleague Calvin Woodward has picked up the baton. In this piece, he "fact-checks" Dean's assertion that 60 percent of Americans got just $304 each from the Bush tax cut. After conceding this figure was correct "when it comes to the poorest 60 percent of Americans" -- the people Dean was, you know, talking about -- Woodward continued, writing " the independent Tax Policy Center has calculated much larger tax cuts for middle-income earners -- $1,012 for example, for someone making $40,000 to $50,000." This, he tells us, provoked "head scratching," though who exactly was doing this scratching is not explained. Others may have been puzzled by Woodward's decision to impugn Dean's honesty on the basis of a claim that was, in fact, accurate.

According to Jack Stokes of AP media relations, "these fact-checking" pieces "aren't criticism," they're simply an effort to "add some context to what was said." But they read an awful lot like attempts to insinuate dishonesty, whether or not the candidate in question is telling the truth.

Nit Picklering is so fun that it's easy to see why it's catching on. For example, when Woodward writes about fiscal policy, he never mentions a new International Monetary Fund report indicating that U.S. deficits threaten the world economy. Similarly, one of Pickler's colleagues in the AP's Washington bureau tells the Prospect that Pickler is on the road reporting and thus unavailable for comment -- but didn't mention that in 2003, journalists carry cell phones when they travel.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. A shorter version of this piece appears in the February 2004 issue of TAP.

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