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Media has the power to halt mudslinging

Mona Charen

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 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 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.

Compare 1970 with 1995. Real per-pupil expenditure averaged $3,713 in 1970 compared with $6,447 in 1995 (in constant 2000 dollars). During this period, the pupil-teacher ratio dropped from 22.3 to one to 17.3 to one. (Source: School Figures, Hoover Institution Press). Reading, math, science and writing scores, meanwhile have fluctuated only very slightly during this period.

A chart mapping scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a basically flat horizontal line. This is not due to larger numbers of poor or minority children in America’s schools, because performance has flattened at the top, as well. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have declined by 56 points, and the number of high scorers has decreased even as the total number of test takers has increased.

So please, no more demands for increased spending on education!

President Bush’s team, meanwhile, has advertised that Sen. Kerry would raise taxes by at least $900 billion in his first hundred days in office. They derived this figure by adding up the amount Kerry has promised to spend on health care ($895 billion over 10 years) with the $165 billion Kerry has promised on this and that, and the price of repealing the Bush tax cuts.

Kerry’s campaign vehemently denies that he intends to raise taxes by that much. Accordingly, the Bush commercial should be clearer. Their figures on what Kerry is promising are correct. But it’s misleading to suggest that Kerry has proposed a tax increase of that size. The ad can simply say the logical result of spending the money Kerry proposes is an even larger federal deficit or higher taxes, or both.

Now it’s everyone else’s turn.

Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate.