Fact-Checking GOP Debate, Campaign YouTube Videos

Health care, illegal immigration and taxes dominated the GOP debate in Las Vegas Tuesday night. Meanwhile, YouTube videos are becoming a staple of campaigns, but can voters trust them? Michel Martin speaks with GOP strategist Mindy Finn to see how candidates fared during the debate. Also, Martin and PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair discuss who told the truth and who didn't, and how GOP presidential hopefuls are using the Internet to deliver political messages.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the nation's largest maximum security prison. Many of its residents are serving sentences so long they will surely die there. So the director of the prison has developed a program to teach inmates to care for their fellow inmates as they enter that final chapter. The film "Serving Life" tells the story of this remarkable experience. Executive producer Forest Whitaker and director Lisa Cohen will tell us more about it in a few minutes. It's part of our series this week on the end of life.

But now to the politics of right now. Campaign YouTube videos are becoming a staple of campaigns but can voters trust what they say? We want to talk about that, but we're going to talk first about the old-fashioned way of hashing out political differences: the debate. Last night, Republican presidential hopefuls convened in Las Vegas for yet another debate, but the issues like health care, illegal immigration and taxes dominated this discussion. It was quite an intense one.

I'm joined now by Bill Adair. He's the editor of the nonpartisan fact-checking website Politifact.com. Also with us is Mindy Finn. She is a Republican strategist. She served as new media advisor for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BILL ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

MINDY FINN: Thank you, happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Mindy, I'm going to start with you and just ask how - this campaign has been in so much flux, and the debate last night just - it seemed that the gloves really came off last night. And I'm just interested in your take on did any of these candidates really distinguish themselves? Did any of these candidates really hurt themselves?

FINN: You know, I don't think that the debate last night will cause any major moves in the polls. You know, the last debate it seemed the candidates had taken the gloves off but in this debate they really took the gloves off and it showed this race is going to shape up to be a pretty intense fight between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and they're not holding back.

MARTIN: So, you don't think the debate, even though the tone of it was kind of a step above the previous ones in terms of the kind of rawness of it. You don't think it was a game changer?

FINN: I don't think the debate was a game changer. If there is any change, it might be just that Rick Perry, you know, did seem to do better. The expectations for him had really been lowered because he had done so poorly in the past debates and this one he just seemed to have a lot more energy and did perform better. And so I think that what we'll see is voters will be giving - that maybe have been writing him off will give him another chance. But I don't think we'll see a major move in the polls just based on that debate.

MARTIN: Okay, Bill Adair your organization specializes in fact-checking statements that are made exactly in forums like this, and I know you were paying close attention to last night. Herman Cain's 999 plan is getting a lot more serious attention now that he has moved to the head of the pack in some polls. I just want to play two clips from the debate from Mitt Romney and from Herman Cain where they're talking about it. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: I like your chutzpah on this, Herman, but I have to tell you that the analysis I did, person-by-person, return-by-return, is that middle income people see higher taxes under your plan. If it's lower for the middle class that's great, but that's not what I saw.

HERMAN CAIN: I invite every American to do their own math because most of these are knee-jerk reactions.

MARTIN: Okay, Bill, so, you've done the math. The core assertion by the opponents is that Herman Cain says the 999 tax plan is revenue neutral and would not raise taxes on the middle class and his opponents say yes it would. What's the truth?

ADAIR: Well, the truth is it would go up on the middle class, and the people who did the math are the Tax Policy Center, which is a very well-respected group of tax experts who put out a report right before the debate, in fact, and so, for instance, as part of that exchange you just played Cain went on to say that his 999 plan does not raise taxes on those that are making the least amount of money and, we, based on the Tax Policy Center, rated that on our truthometer on Politifact. We rated it false.

And when you look at the numbers it's pretty striking the way that the plan would affect the middle income people and people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. You know, people making less than $10,000, 84 percent of them would see a tax increase. Ninety-eight percent of the people making ten to 20,000 would see an increase. It's a great plan though if you're a millionaire.

The Tax Policy Center said that a large percentage I think something like 90 percent of millionaires would see a tax decrease averaging about half a million dollars. So, it really is a...

MARTIN: It's regressive. So, why...

ADAIR: ...it is a very regressive plan.

MARTIN: ...mainly because of the sales tax?

ADAIR: Yeah, and also because remember that a lot of people that earn less than $50,000 don't pay any income tax now at all, and so this would totally change that, and so that makes it more regressive.

MARTIN: Were there any other moments that particularly stood out in terms of comments that the candidates said that you really feel it's important that people understand that it's not true or that you said earned a false, or even "liar, liar pants on fire" rating on your truthometer?

ADAIR: Yeah, we didn't give any "pants on fires" last night. The other one that I thought was interesting and this has been a theme from the Romney campaign, Romney saying that in Texas they've had this huge increase in illegal immigrants in contrast to Florida and California. His point being Perry is to blame; Perry talks tough on immigration but the numbers just don't indicate that he's had any impact. And we rated Romney's claim half true, and the reason is the numbers are right but you really can't blame a governor for an increase in illegal immigration.

Governors are not responsible for policing the border. Perry's actually tried to do more. And that went half true on our truthometer.

MARTIN: Half true. OK. If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the editor of the political fact-checking website Politifact.com, Bill Adair. I'm also joined by Republican strategist Mindy Finn. We've been talking about last night's GOP debate in Las Vegas, Nevada. As I mentioned earlier, candidates are turning to the Internet more and more to reach voters. Last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry launched an attack ad directed at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

The ad appeared on YouTube. It focused on the health care changes Romney pushed while serving as governor of Massachusetts. And because this is radio you can't see the visual but the real kind of point was to morph Romney into Obama using the same campaign colors, some of the similar graphics. I'll just play a short clip. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

ROMNEY: Now, I'm a conservative businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Time and again, the White House has pointed to the Massachusetts law as the model for its Obamacare.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I agree with Mitt Romney. He's right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jimmy Carter throwing his weight behind Mitt Romney.

ROMNEY: Once you follow the path that we pursued, you'll find it's the best path. I like mandates. In my book, I said no such thing. I stand by what I wrote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Noting that the line about doing the same thing for everyone in the country has been deleted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why if it's good for Massachusetts, and it's working in Massachusetts, wouldn't you apply it to the rest of the country?

ROMNEY: I would.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Romney has flip-flopped...

MARTIN: Bill, your organization Politifact took - first of all I love the lightning bolts. Don't you?

ADAIR: It is a wonderfully sneaky ad. You know the way that...

MARTIN: Oh, I know but it sounds like an ad for "Planet of the Apes." I mean, but anyway, but Politifact took issue with the way this video was edited; specifically, you cited the bit that was taken from NBC's "Meet The Press" in 2007, that last bit that you heard right there. What did you find wrong there?

ADAIR: Well, what he did is just take it out of context and of course this is a classic way that they do this in campaign ads. And what they did was they took an interview that Romney did with Tim Russert and ignored the full context of what Romney said and really Romney consistently in that interview and others has said that his plan in Massachusetts was right for Massachusetts but that he respects the right of other states to decide whether to adopt similar plans or their own based on their own circumstances. But that gets edited out and in this, just as in what Perry has said in the debates, Perry makes the claim that Romney wants to apply this kind of one-size-fits-all plan to the states. And the editing of this ad is just very creative and very sneaky in that it leaves that on the cutting-room floor.

MARTIN: We're kind of being jovial about this and we're kind of laughing because, you know, the ad is kind of fun to watch, but do you think that it crosses an ethical line that you feel is really important to point out? That you really feel they're fundamentally distorting his record?

ADAIR: Yeah, I do think they're fundamentally distorting his record. I'm not sure that crosses an ethical line. There have been distortions in American politics since American politics got started. It's just gotten more high-tech, and the web ads are particularly effective at doing this because they can produce them quickly, get them up on the web. They don't have to do a big buy on TV stations. And so, we've seen a lot so far, we're going to see a lot more of this. Romney's putting them out, too.

MARTIN: Mindy, what's your take on this? Do you think that these videos are changing the way campaigns operate? What's your take on it?

FINN: I don't think they're changing the way campaigns operate. I think, as Bill said, they do - you know, YouTube provides an opportunity for campaigns to get a message out there to a large number of viewers and have an impact without having to put money behind it. And that's the change. It's been growing as a tactic in the last few election cycles, and I'd like to note that this is really the first election cycle that you see the media starting to understand that these videos are as powerful - potentially as powerful, or more powerful, than a television ad. And, you know, it's a slight nuance, but you used to report them purely as web videos and you'll see that a lot of the media now report them as - you know, the Romney campaign released an ad today or the Perry and Romney campaigns are up with dueling ads.

Because, if you look at the ad that you referred to, that the Perry campaign put out, it has over 180,000 YouTube views. You know, I think it's a combination, in these videos, of a powerful message in concept, as well as the production. The Perry team - actually, something affiliated with the Perry team called Perry Truth Team - had put out a video with a similar concept, previously, before this one went out, that also showed Romney's different takes that he had - the responses he's given on the health care issue where there is some hypocrisy. And it was a very poor production value, and it only has something like 20,000 views. Where then, you know, this video that you referred to, was released - very high production value, you know, perhaps sneaky, as Bill said, but certainly gets your attention and makes its point. There's no doubt about what they're trying to say and it leaves you saying, wow!

MARTIN: And Bill, a final thought from you. You know, your organization is all about what's true. And what I'm wondering is, are you gearing up for, you know, more work as a result of this, because you feel it's going to be easier to distort the facts? Or do you feel that, again, like it's just going to become part of the arsenal?

ADAIR: Well, the economy may be hurting, but it's full employment for fact checkers. There's a lot going on with the campaign and I think what we're doing a little bit differently this time, is we're aware that there are lots of different ways that campaigns are reaching people, whether it's a web video like this, whether it's through social media. And so we're fact-checking tweets and Facebook posts and many different things. And so we're casting a wider net for our fact-checking and, you know, putting it all to the truth-o-meter.

MARTIN: Bill Adair is the editor of the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact.com. He was nice enough to join us here in our Washington, DC studios. Mindy Finn is a Republican strategist and also served as new media advisor to Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. She joined us on the line from New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

FINN: Thank you. Happy to be here.

ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

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