Campaign Sound Bites: Does Truth Matter?

Mitt Romney has spent the past week hammering one comment that President Obama made about business owners: "You didn't build that." The Obama campaign protests that the comment was taken out of context. The Romney campaign says it points to a deeper truth about President Obama's philosophy. Does the truth even matter?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In other appearances over the last week, Mitt Romney has been hammering a comment President Obama made about business owners. You didn't build that - that's the quote. The Obama campaign protests that the comment has been taken out of context. The Romney campaign says it points to a deeper truth about President Obama's philosophy.

NPR's Ari Shapiro examines whether the truth matters.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: From the very beginning, this campaign's relationship to the truth has been shaky at best. Mitt Romney's first ad quoted President Obama, saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.

SHAPIRO: In fact the president never really said that. Here was the full quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

OBAMA: John McCain knows his economic theories don't work. That's why his campaign said that if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.

SHAPIRO: The Democrats pulled a similar trick in January after Mitt Romney answered a question about health care in New Hampshire this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

MITT ROMNEY: I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people that provide services to me.

SHAPIRO: "I like being able to fire people" took on a life of its own. The Democrats juxtaposed the clip with Donald Trump in a Web video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DONALD TRUMP: You're fired. You're fired.

ROMNEY: I like being able to fire people that provide services to me.

SHAPIRO: The latest quote in this tug of war over the truth came from President Obama in Roanoke, Virginia.

OBAMA: Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, that - you didn't build that.

SHAPIRO: The Romney campaign released this ad in response, featuring a small business owner from New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Obama, you're killing us out here. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?

SHAPIRO: The New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper reported that the company featured in the ad received government support, $800,000 in tax-exempt revenue bonds to set up a manufacturing plant. Yesterday, the Obama campaign released this TV ad which will run in six swing states.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD)

OBAMA: Those ads taking my words about small business out of context, they're flat-out wrong. Of course Americans build their own businesses.

SHAPIRO: On CNBC, Romney suggested it doesn't matter whether the comment is being taken out of context.

ROMNEY: I find the speech even more disconcerting than just that particular line. The context is worse than the quote.

SHAPIRO: This effort to dig down to the true meaning of a candidate's comments rests on a few assumptions. Most basically it assumes that truth matters. It assumes that people want to know what a candidate actually said and meant. It assumes that distortions are bad. In fact, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely of Duke says those assumptions may be false. He's author of "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everybody, Especially Ourselves."

DAN ARIELY: And we recently did a study on this. We just asked a few hundred people online to what extent they think that their candidates could be dishonest if it promoted their political agenda.

SHAPIRO: He found that people were totally comfortable with politicians of their own party being dishonest to get elected.

ARIELY: And by the way, for Democrats, this was a slightly more endorsed position than for the Republicans. So the Democrats are more willing for their politicians to lie to a higher degree than the Republicans.

SHAPIRO: There is lots of evidence that people don't necessarily seek the truth. They seek to have their beliefs confirmed. Pablo Boczkowski of Northwestern University studies the way people consume news.

PABLO BOCZKOWSKI: What I see in our research is that people want to get the news that speaks to their beliefs and the issues that they are interested in, and they are willing to avoid the rest.

SHAPIRO: So what did President Obama actually mean when he said "you didn't build that," or what did Mitt Romney mean when he said "I like to fire people"? Increasingly the answer seems to be: you don't want to know. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: People may not be looking for the truth, as Ari suggested, but they are forming opinions. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls shows most registered voters now have lower opinions of both the president and Mitt Romney. Of the voters who have seen, heard, or read something about the campaigns, 44 percent have a less favorable view of Mr. Obama; 27 percent have developed a more positive view. When it comes to Romney, 43 percent said their view is now less favorable, with 28 percent saying their opinion is more favorable.

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