After reading and watching the local news coverage of the first presidential debate, one would think that they were watching a boxing match. The three Grand Rapids-based TV stations all used stories from the networks featuring reporters who used words like “sparing”, “punched back”, “survived the blows” and “retaliated” to describe the debate. The print media wasn’t much better, since the Grand Rapids Press front page story for September 27 read, “Round 1: In your face.”
The first of three presidential debates was billed as a foreign policy debate, but the moderator decided to have the candidates focus on the proposed $700 billion dollar Wall Street “bailout.” None of the local news outlets we looked at had any concrete responses from either candidate, only comments where candidates blamed each other’s policies for the “failed economy.” All four local news sources we looked at included comments from the candidates on their tax policies, but in each instance, the comments were partial and not solution-based. For example, the Press quotes Senator Obama as saying that the economic crisis is “a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain.” The reporter does not verify the claim or investigate which of the Bush administration’s economic policies Senator McCain has indeed supported.
However, most of the coverage focused on the candidates’ positions on Iraq. WXMI 17’s story quoted Senator McCain as saying that “Senator Obama has admitted that ‘the Surge’ in Iraq worked” and Senator Obama stated that it is “because of the sacrifice of our troops.” In the WZZM 13 story, Senator Obama says that “McCain was wrong on the war in Iraq” while the Press article stated:
“McCain accused his younger rival of an “incredible thing of voting to cut off funds for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan,” a reference to legislation that cleared the Senate more than a year ago. Obama disputed that, saying he had opposed funding in a bill that presented a “blank check” to the Pentagon while McCain had opposed money in legislation that included a timetable for troop withdrawal.”
Despite Iraq being mentioned as an area of disagreement, there was little information in any of the local news coverage to actually support such a claim, even though there has been plenty written about their positions on Iraq.
The Press did run an additional article on page two on Saturday, September 27 from the Associated Press (AP) entitled “Candidates flub on some facts.” Despite the bad headline, the article did provide some analysis of comments made by both candidates that were inaccurate or misleading. The original version of the AP story was much longer and looked at the candidates ‘comments on Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan and Russia, all of which were brought up in the debate.
This type of fact checking is extremely important for the public in order to make informed decisions about the candidates, especially when most of the coverage lacks any substance and presents the debate as a spectator sport.