Every election year, politicians massage, manipulate and sometimes outright distort the facts in order to get elected. When the contest is over, journalists gather at jaw jaws like the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard and gravely pull their chins over this lamentable phenomenon.
But the journalists are the very people who can put a stop to this. If major newspapers and television news programs made a huge stink about every misleading ad, and if they did so even-handedly, the political climate would improve rapidly.
This does, of course, assume that the networks and other major media players are capable of fairness. And it further assumes that they can lift their sights from the dull horse race coverage upon which they focus so maniacally. Besides, for their own sanity's sake, if not for ours, can they bear eight months of who's ahead? Political reporters are constantly decrying spin, but they fail to do the one thing that would make spin less profitable -- fact check.
Here is my contribution.
The Kerry campaign has a new ad out suggesting that President Bush has "cut key education programs by 27 percent." According to the Annenberg Political Fact Sheet, they derived this figure by comparing the amount Congress had wanted to spend on the No Child Left Behind bill with what the president finally signed. That isn't a "cut," that is a dispute over how much to increase spending.
In fact, President Bush has increased federal spending by 58 percent -- a larger increase than President Clinton presided over and one that some of us very much regret. It is also peculiar to raise this particular criticism (false though it is) in an ad whose overall point is that Bush has ballooned (yes, this word has apparently become a verb) the deficit.
In a better world, it would be impossible for anyone of either party to suggest that more government spending is a good idea for education. A cursory glance at education spending over the past several decades shows that spending at all levels of government on education has tripled (in real terms) since 1960. Though buckets of ink are spilled analyzing the increasing cost of health care, education spending has increased far more. Last year, Americans spent half a trillion dollars on education. And unlike health care, which has delivered life-enhancing and life-saving medicines, procedures and tests, the money we've spent on education has brought us zero improvement.