Taking a Critical View of Political Ads

Brooks Jackson, director of the voter-advocacy organization FactCheck.org, talks with Scott Simon about how to spot misinformation in campaign ads.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Brooks Jackson is the director of FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan voter advocacy organization that tries to keep tabs on political campaigns around the country. He joins us from southern Maryland. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. BROOKS JACKSON (Factcheck.org): My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Can you offer us any tips as to how to watch a political ad over these next few weeks and months?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I would say very carefully and with a big shaker of salt. We got started in 2003, FactCheck.org did, very late in 2003, and saw many, many misleading ads in the presidential campaign on both sides. Now we're looking at House and Senate races, and we're starting to see, as we fully expected, the same kinds of tactics, in some cases copied from 2004.

I think you need to listen very carefully to exactly what's being said, because sometimes the words are chosen very carefully and they mean one thing but seem to mean another. And sometimes they're just wrong.

SIMON: But let's work in - we have a couple of clips from ads that are currently running in a couple of states. Senator Lieberman's loss in the Democratic primary in Connecticut raised the question as to whether incumbents are specifically vulnerable this year. We should say the senator is actually doing fine running as an independent, at least in the polls.

But this has drawn even more attention to nearby Rhode Island. You have a Republican senator there, Lincoln Chafee, who faces a primary challenge in his party from the right. This is an ad paid for by The Club for Growth, attacking Senator Chafee.

(Soundbite of ad)

ANNOUNCER: Lincoln Chafee's wide world of wasteful spending. Chafee voted to spend $200 million on the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, 50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa, and a half million on the Montana Sheep Institute. Then Chafee voted for higher income, Social Security and gas taxes.

SIMON: Well, sprightly little tune. Fair or foul on the facts?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, misleading, and we have several trends to dissect in this ad alone. For one thing, this is an independent group. They are a conservative anti-tax group that wants even further reductions in federal taxes. One of the things you heard them say is that Lincoln Chafee voted for higher taxes. Well, higher than what?

If you examine this, it turns out most of the votes, nearly all the votes they're talking about, were actually votes to keep taxes the same. They were votes against somebody's proposed tax cut. That was a tactic George Bush used against John Kerry two years ago.

SIMON: At the same time, let me ask you about New Hampshire, where the liberal group MoveOn.org has been running television ads critical of the Republican incumbent Charlie Bass. The ads accuse him of wasteful spending in Iraq.

(Soundbite of ad)

ANNOUNCER: What happened to the $300 billion we sent to Iraq? Halliburton got 18 billion, nine billion is just plain missing, and our congressman, Charlie Bass, has been caught red-handed voting for all of it.

SIMON: How fair or accurate is this ad?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, they're running these ads actually against three Republicans. They're very similar, almost identical ads. They say these three were caught red-handed. If you look at the dictionary, the definition of red-handed, one definition is caught in the commission of a crime, hands dripping with blood. And they say no, no, no, we mean to imply only that he did something morally wrong by voting for this money for Halliburton and money that went missing.

If you look at their backup, what these three members actually voted for was military appropriations bills. And here we discover that MoveOn.org is also applying a double standard because Democrats also overwhelmingly voted for the same military spending bills, including three candidates that MoveOn.org endorses.

SIMON: Has the rise of private groups who can spend money without limit encouraged them to be a little bit more misleading? Because in a sense their representations can't be tied to the candidate.

Mr. JACKSON: I think that's true, and others have observed this as well. There's no check at the polling place for an independent group that takes out an extremely misleading ad. I've also observed, and I think this is something that might benefit from some scientific research in the future, but it seems to me that there's a financial incentive for independent groups to be more extreme and more outrageous than, say, a political party or a candidate.

You frequently see ads put up on the Internet, on the homepages of independent groups, saying help us raise the money to put this ad on the air. And they're targeting those ads, of course, to their membership, which frequently are at the extremes of the political spectrum. So they're trying to stir up the base with these ads and get them to open their checkbooks.

SIMON: Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org which is a project at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JACKSON: My pleasure Scott.

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