January 2, 2008

CNN's Inaccurate Fact-Check on Romney

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When journalists perform a fact check, the reader expects it will be, well…factual, or at least more accurate than the ad in question. Unfortunately, CNN’s recent analysis by Howard Kurtz, which checks Mitt Romney’s two negative ads against McCain and Huckabee, fulfills neither criteria. By their own standards, CNN not only failed to do enough research for this analysis, but they also made statements with questionable validity.

To start off, the CNN analysis questions Romney’s accusation that McCain voted to let illegal immigrants stay in America permanently. It instead asserts that the legislation actually “would have required illegal immigrants to return to their home countries and pay a fine for breaking the law before applying for legal status.” However, illegal immigrants do not have to return home to stay in the country indefinitely. Although an application for a green card would have to be filled out from the immigrant’s home country, immigrants do not have to return home to get a Z-visa, and under the legislation, Z-visas could be renewed indefinitely. Additionally, this information can be obtained from a fact sheet on the White House website, which is quite ironic since President Bush actually supported this legislation. Although all illegal immigrants must pay fines, they do not have to return home, and thus Romney’s original assertion that illegal immigrants can stay here permanently is correct. In fact, he has already given this explanation during CNN’s own Republican debate on June 5th. So CNN not only botched this fact-check, but they also made a mistake when the correct information was available from their own archives.

Romney, Illegal Immigration, and Z-Visas at CNN’s Debate

For Romney’s anti-Huckabee ad, Kurtz accuses Romney of misquoting Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Allegedly, the ad said that Rice called Huckabee’s foreign policy “ludicrous” when in fact she called Huckabee’s criticism of Bush’s foreign policy, not Huckabee’s own foreign policy, ludicrous. To see where Kurtz and CNN went wrong here, one does not need to perform extensive research, study the issue in-depth, or even use any outside sources. One just has to watch the original ad. While the audio component does imply that Rice called Huckabee’s foreign policy ludicrous, the video component–only slightly important for a television ad–explicitly states that Rice called Huckabee’s criticism ludicrous. And the discrepancy between the two could possibly be explained by the fact that humans can read text faster than they can speak. After all, in the world of television, every second counts. But regardless of the reason for this discrepancy, the text on-screen was a critical detail, and Kurtz’s rebuff of Romney proves grossly misleading and almost dishonest for omitting that. No candidate would survive the scrutiny of a fact-check by making such a ludicrous omission.

Romney’s Ad with Both Audio and Video

To their credit, however, CNN and Kurtz did get one part correct. They correctly stated McCain did not vote to let illegal immigrants collect Social Security, but he instead voted to let legal immigrants collect Social Security benefits from any jobs they had when they were illegal immigrants. However, this one misinterpretation by itself hardly constitutes an impressive fact check. When one excludes the distorted parts of the article and also the parts that do not directly relate to fact-checking, the analysis has little real substance left. Most of the alleged distortion or untruths, especially the more damaging ones, hold little weight, and CNN and Kurtz hardly met the standards of their own headline.

Furthermore, CNN had far less of an excuse to make such errors than Romney. Romney only had a thirty-second television spot to make his point. As one could imagine, with such limited space, some details will inevitably be lost in translation no matter how accurate Romney strives to be. However, Howard Kurtz had an entire article to do his fact check, giving him more space than necessary to discuss every possible nuance. Yet even though Kurtz had more space available for his spot, he produced a piece that was less accurate than the ad it analyzed.

In the field of journalism, readers have a reasonable expectation for factual and truthful reporting. When the candidates themselves launch dirty attacks against opponents, the coverage of these attacks should be clean and truthful. However, Romney’s original ads, while not spotless, proved more trustworthy than CNN’s messy analysis of these ads. With only a few days left before the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary occurring less than a week after the caucus, and close races for Romney in both states, CNN has no excuse for letting these errors through. While the high stakes should not affect CNN’s coverage of the Republican primary, that does not mean CNN can not at least double-check a fact-check before approving it.

Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at mwacker@cornellsun.com.