Some campaign disputes can be tricky to sort out. Others are not. That's why media coverage that takes the both-sides-have-a-point approach can be so disappointing, if not dangerous.
Take Mitt Romney's recent claim that the White House was "gutting" the work requirements in the 1996 welfare "reform" law. As a Romney TV ad put it: "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
That charge earned a "Pants on Fire" from PolitiFact (8/7/12), which pointed out that the policy change that is supposedly at issue here would grant waivers to some states that are seeking different ways to implement work requirements under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. But the policy goal of encouraging employment would not change.
Other groups have come to the same conclusion about the dishonesty of the ad. But on the PBS NewsHour (8/9/12), the false ad was cast as a policy disagreement. Instead of examining the claims, the NewsHour just reiterated what each side was saying. As anchor Judy Woodruff put it, "Dueling claims from both presidential campaigns put those subjects in the political arena this week." Viewers learned that the White House and Bill Clinton say Romney's not telling the truth, but Romney says otherwise.
And the discussion segment that followed that report failed to offer any clarity at all. Heritage Foundation senior fellow Robert Rector took Romney's side, arguing that these changes amount to some sort of liberal plan to get rid of welfare reform. Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman–who resigned in protest from the Clinton administration over the welfare plan–said Romney's attack was false. Since the two did not seem to agree on the basic facts, the discussion must have seemed bewildering to most viewers.
At the top of the segment, Woodruff said, "It's been many years, even decades, since poverty and, more specifically, welfare has been the center of attention on the national political stage." That's certainly true. And coverage like this does little to improve public understanding of those issues.