In Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney completely misrepresented how we ended up in Iraq. Later, Mike Huckabee mistakenly claimed that it was Ronald Reagan's birthday.
Guess which remark The Washington Post identified as the "gaffe of the night"?
Folks, this is serious. If early campaign reporting is any guide, the bad media habits that helped install the worst president ever in the White House haven't changed a bit.
You may not remember the presidential debate of Oct. 3, 2000, or how it was covered, but you should. It was one of the worst moments in an election marked by news media failure as serious, in its way, as the later failure to question Bush administration claims about Iraq.
Throughout that debate, George W. Bush made blatantly misleading statements, including some outright lies — for example, when he declared of his tax cut that "the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder." That should have told us, right then and there, that he was not a man to be trusted.
But few news reports pointed out the lie. Instead, many news analysts chose to critique the candidates' acting skills. Al Gore was declared the loser because he sighed and rolled his eyes — failing to conceal his justified disgust at Mr. Bush's dishonesty. And that's how Mr. Bush got within chad-and-butterfly range of the presidency.
Now fast forward to last Tuesday. Asked whether we should have invaded Iraq, Mr. Romney said that war could only have been avoided if Saddam "had opened up his country to I.A.E.A. inspectors, and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction." He dismissed this as an "unreasonable hypothetical."
Except that Saddam did, in fact, allow inspectors in. Remember Hans Blix? When those inspectors failed to find nonexistent W.M.D., Mr. Bush ordered them out so that he could invade. Mr. Romney's remark should have been the central story in news reports about Tuesday's debate. But it wasn't.
There wasn't anything comparable to Mr. Romney's rewritten history in the Democratic debate two days earlier, which was altogether on a higher plane. Still, someone should have called Hillary Clinton on her declaration that on health care, "we're all talking pretty much about the same things." While the other two leading candidates have come out with plans for universal (John Edwards) or near-universal (Barack Obama) health coverage, Mrs. Clinton has so far evaded the issue. But again, this went unmentioned in most reports.
By the way, one reason I want health care specifics from Mrs. Clinton is that she's received large contributions from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Will that deter her from taking those industries on?
Back to the debate coverage: as far as I can tell, no major news organization did any fact-checking of either debate. And post-debate analyses tended to be horse-race stuff mingled with theater criticism: assessments not of what the candidates said, but of how they "came across."
Thus most analysts declared Mrs. Clinton the winner in her debate, because she did the best job of delivering sound bites — including her Bush-talking-point declaration that we're safer now than we were on 9/11, a claim her advisers later tried to explain away as not meaning what it seemed to mean.
Similarly, many analysts gave the G.O.P. debate to Rudy Giuliani not because he made sense — he didn't — but because he sounded tough saying things like, "It's unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror." (Why?)
Look, debates involving 10 people are, inevitably, short on extended discussion. But news organizations should fight the shallowness of the format by providing the facts — not embrace it by reporting on a presidential race as if it were a high-school popularity contest.
For if there's one thing I hope we've learned from the calamity of the last six and a half years, it's that it matters who becomes president — and that listening to what candidates say about substantive issues offers a much better way to judge potential presidents than superficial character judgments. Mr. Bush's tax lies, not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.
And I don't know if this country can survive another four years of Bush-quality leadership.
Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.
© 2007 The New York Times