Evaluate the truth of campaign claimsBy DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
As the November elections draw closer, readers minds are turning to politics even more than usual. I havent been surprised that some common themes Ive heard in years past are starting to crop up more often in my inbox.
This year, Ive already heard from multiple readers pointing to stories about the presidential campaigns talking points. One example was a July 14 wire story, Romney hammers president over Bain Capital attacks.
It was a typical report about the two campaigns back-and-forth over Republican candidate Mitt Romneys stewardship of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded. The story says the Obama campaign has portrayed Romney as a corporate raider who enriched himself by shipping U.S. jobs overseas. Particularly at question is the time period of 1999 - 2002 when Romney says he was playing no operational role in the firm. The story in The Star points to SEC documents that seem to indicate otherwise, as Romney was identified as the firms managing director in 2000 and 2001.
However, other news reports have supported Romneys account. The well-respected and non-partisan FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has laid out the case convincingly that contemporaneous documentation shows Romney was not directing Bain, backed up by similar conclusions from Fortune, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review and ABC News.
We obviously dont have a time machine to whisk us back to 2000 and cat-burglar our way into Bains boardrooms. To my mind, the preponderance of evidence supports Romneys defense and so I agree with those readers who have underlined a request Ive heard uncountable times: When any candidate makes a statement that isnt supported by the facts, the news story should add that context. Here, the wire story should at the very least have mentioned that other accounts disagree about the import of the SEC filings.
But what about when a politician charges that his opponents policies have hurt the economy, for example? Ask a hundred dismal scientists about the effects of a piece of public policy, and youre likely to get a hundred different explanations. There are times when truth isnt a simple matter of fact checking. Here, journalists should offer context, even if there are no concrete conclusions to be made.
I received an interesting question via email concerning a story on the July 12 front page about the fight between moderates and conservatives in Kansas Republican politics.
I was reading the article in todays Star about Bill Graves coming back to Kansas to support moderate Republicans and noticed that (Kansas Gov.) Brownbacks spokesperson and the Kansas director of Americans for Prosperity have the same last name Sherriene Jones-Sontag and Derrick Sontag, respectively, she wrote. Is there a relationship between these two? If so, it would suggest that Americans for Prosperity has a pipeline to the Governors office, which should raise some red flags, or at least be reported.
I did some checking, and her supposition is correct. The two are married. In fact, Sherriene was former Kansas attorney general Phill Klines director of communications, and the 2006 press release about that appointment mentioned her husband.
So is that a relevant part of the story? Relationships among people who work in areas of government and public policy are hardly novel. I think some readers would be surprised to see how many lobbyists, consultants and think tankers have close relationships to government officials.
But is that any reason the Sontags marriage shouldnt have been reported? Not that I can think of. It would have taken just a few words.