Spinning swift boat vets as Bush surrogates (9/1)

By Ben Fritz

Reporters and pundits keep going beyond the evidence to blur the lines between the Bush campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that has been critical of John Kerry's Vietnam war record.

While news outlets including the New York Times have documented various connections between Bush and the so-called 527 group, there's no evidence that the President is behind the ads. But as Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk weblog showed recently, reporters have often written news articles based on the presumption of a connection, writing only that the two groups claim to be separate.

Since then, many liberal pundits have implied a direct connection between the Bush campaign and the independent group. Filmmaker Michael Moore went the furthest in a recent open letter to the President. In it, he repeatedly attributed accusations made by SBVFT to Bush. "And thanks, also, Mr. Bush," he says in one such accusation, "for exposing the fact that Mr. Kerry might have actually WOUNDED HIMSELF in order to get those shiny medals.

More common than such outright conflation are accusations that the SBWFT are "surrogates" of the Bush campaign. The word implies evidence that the SBVFT are working on behalf of or as substitutes for the President, but pundits often arenít demonstrating that.

For instance, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor and syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker said of the Swift Boat Vets, "Bush's surrogates lie to tarnish Kerry's medals." Other pundits who have referred to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as Bush campaign "surrogates" are Hearst Newspapers reporter and columnist Helen Thomas and New Jersey Star-Ledger national political correspondent John Farmer.

Disturbingly, this spin mirrors the Kerry campaign's line on the Swift Boat Vets. The Democratic presidential candidate has called the group a "front for the Bush campaign." Other Democrats have directly referred to them as Bush "surrogates."

Surely pundits and reporters should present some evidence before repeating unproven political claims as fact.

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Update (9/7): A version of this post was included in our Philadelpia Inquirer column on September 2.

Related links:
-Sorting out the truth in the fog of war (Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, 8/12/04)

9/1/2004 07:20:53 PM EST |

Thompson's stem cell spin multiplies (8/30)

By Brendan Nyhan

The Bush administration continues to try to spin the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a pattern that dates back to the President's first speech on the issue, as we show in our book.

In a recent USA Today op-ed, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson suggested that stem cell lines are more widely available to researchers in the US than anywhere else in the world:

Most of the established US scientists in this field have received funding, and shipments of stem-cell lines are going out to researchers in record numbers. More lines are available in the USA than in any other country.

Thompson's first sentence concerns the availability of embryonic stem cell lines and funding to American researchers. Thus, when read in context, the claim that "[m]ore lines are available in the USA than in any other country" implies that scientists here have access to more lines than those in other countries.

This is misleading. Though it may be technically true that more lines are offered by laboratories based in the US than those in any other single country, the embryonic stem cell debate concerns the number of lines that American scientists can use in federally funded research, not the geographic location of those lines. Contrary to Thompson's spin, President Bush's policy restricting federal funding to lines created before August 9, 2001 means that far more lines are "available" to government-funded researchers in many other countries than in the US (similarly, privately funded researchers in the US have access to a wider array of lines). As Gareth Cook wrote in the Boston Globe in May:

[T]oday there are only 19 usable lines created before [August 9, 2001], and that number is never likely to rise above 23, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, the number of cell lines available to the world's researchers, but off-limits to US government-funded researchers, is now much higher: at least 51, according to the survey. It could rise to more than 100 over the coming year.
(Note: The lines currently available to federally-funded researchers from the NIH registry is 22.)

This strategy is reminiscent of the Bush administration's sleight-of-hand when initially announcing its policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. In his August 9, 2001 speech, Bush said "more than sixty genetically diverse stem cell lines exist" and argued that "we should allow federal funding to be used for research into these existing stem cell lines." However, while more than sixty lines did exist in a technical sense, most of those lines were not available and ready for research, as Bush had implied. Thompson's disingenuous spin is just more of the same.

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Update (9/7): A version of this post was included in our Philadelpia Inquirer column on September 2.

Related links
-Chapter 5 of All the President's Spin details how the White House first spun the stem cell issue in 2001.

8/31/2004 05:29:07 AM EST |

Cheney's not-so-Freudian slips (8/30)

By Brendan Nyhan

In two recent speeches, Vice President Dick Cheney drew laughs by confusing Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry with his Senate colleague from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. While at first it might seem a casual slip of the tongue, Cheney's use of the same language to explain the putative mistake suggests strategy rather than coincidence is at work.

On August 14, Cheney told an Elko, Nevada crowd that a Kerry proposal to cut funding from the intelligence budget "was voted down 75 to 20. Not even Senator Kerry -- excuse me -- not even Senator Kennedy would vote for it. Sometimes I get them confused. (Laughter and applause.)"

Then, during an August 25 speech in Pennsylvania, Cheney said, " I listened to what Senator Kennedy had to -- excuse me, I get them confused sometimes -- (laughter) -- I listened to what Senator Kerry had to say in Boston, and, with all due respect to the Senator, he views the world sometimes as if we had never been attacked on September 11th."

Given the highly visible Republican strategy of associating Kerry with Kennedy, as well as Cheney's recent invocations of Kennedy's name on the campaign trail, these alleged slipups seem to be the cutting edge of political rhetoric - intentionally confusing the names of two people to blur the distinctions between them.

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8/30/2004 08:39:47 AM EST |