Campaign Attack Ads Call 'Facts' Into Question

This political season has been filled with campaign ads containing allegations that many say are untrue, prompting journalists and media watchdog groups to act as truth checkers. Viveca Novak, of the Web site factcheck.org, and author Brenden Nyhan, separate political fact from fiction and discuss how much voters' value truth.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, it's Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. Now, most people know that fasting during daylight is a critical part of the observance but so is donating to charity. But that faith commitment has been complicated by the post 9/11 government scrutiny of some Muslim charities, leading some observant Muslims to wonder whether the very act of giving will expose them to suspicion. We're going to talk about that on our faith matters conversation. But first it's time for our weekly political chat. This election season has been filled with talk about reform and change. But one thing has not changed, the barrage of ads directed at the voters, especially in swing states. You cannot turn on our television or radio without seeing and hearing them. In response to that media blitz, another army of watchdogs and journalists has mustered itself to truth squad these claims and counterclaims by the candidates. So we decided to ask, are the campaigns talking straight or not, and is all that truth squading really making a difference. Some provocative new research suggests it doesn't.

Joining us to talk about this is Viveca Novak, she's deputy director of FactCheck.org. Also with us is Brendan Nyhan, he's a PhD candidate at Duke University and author of a paper called "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions." Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. VIVECA NOVAK (Deputy Director, FactCheck.org): Good to be with you.

Mr. BRENDAN NYHAN: (PhD Candidate, Duke University, Author, "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence Of Political Misperceptions"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now Brendan, I'm going to ask you to stand by. We're going to get you in just a minute. First to you, Viveca. Let me just say upfront, we're not going to talk about the whole question of negative ads per se, whether they're good or bad. We're just going to talk about whether - about the accuracy of ads. Overall, since the conventions and with the start of the fall campaigns, have the ads been generally, generally accurate or not?

Ms. NOVAK: Well, I think you're seeing a lot of attacks ads on both sides. Attack ads are where you tend to see more misleading statements, if not, outright falsehoods. I think that at this moment in time, we've seen more inaccurate stuff coming out of the McCain campaign, than the Obama campaign. Again, it's a snapshot in time that could change and we've certainly seen some inaccurate ads as well from the Obama campaign. It's just preponderance right now. It seems to be more from the McCain side.

MARTIN: All right, let's take each of those each in turn. Let's listen to a clip from an Obama campaign ad.

(Soundbite of Barack Obama campaign ad)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN(Republican, Arizona, Presidential Nominee): It's over. It's over for the special interest.

Unidentified Man: Wait a second. John McCain's chief advisor lobbies for oil companies, even from Russia and China.

MARTIN: Viveca, true or false?

Ms. NOVAK: Well, he did. Charlie Black is who they're talking about. And he did lobby for oil companies but I think it was the spring when he joined up with the campaign. When the campaign put an official policy in place, he left his firm.

MARTIN: Now, here's a clip from a speech that John McCain gave in June.

Senator MCCAIN: Under Senator Obama's tax plan, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise. Seniors, parents, small business owners, and just about everyone who has even a modest investment in the market.

MARTIN: Needless to say that the tax issue is big on the campaign trail right now. Truth or false?

Ms. NOVAK: Absolutely false. The Obama tax plan talks about raising taxes for people making more than 250,000 dollars or for individuals making more than 200,000 dollars. Same is true for small businesses. You'll also see McCain ads out there saying he wants to tax your electricity that also is not true.

MARTIN: So, when you say that the McCain campaign, you think has been more egregious or has had more. Is it qualitative or quantitative? Is it that they have more ads making more false claims or is it that there's just too much distance between the facts and what they're saying?

Ms. NOVAK: I think it's both, I think - I think the false information that you see in the Obama ads to the extent that it's there and there is some as we just heard, is more stretching and less sort of just outright wrong. And this seems to be, you know, as far as we can tell it's a concerted strategy because certainly not just us but other groups. And the mainstream media is certainly doing this now as well, have pointed out over and over again for instance that the Sarah Palin did not say, you know, thanks but no thanks to the bridge to nowhere. But they say it over and over again.

MARTIN: Yeah, speaking of the bridge to nowhere. Tell us what are the facts about the bridge to nowhere? We've just played a short clip of her saying that at the Republican convention. What is the truth about that?

Ms. NOVAK: Well, she never said thanks but no thanks. What happened is that the project was in the works in Congress before she even became governor, it moved along. And she - when Congress - it sort of became a national laughing stock when McCain made an issue of it and others made an issue of it, as a bridge that would connect you know, very small populations to each other but cost a lot of money to do so. And what happened is she never said no, but the money was eventually sent to Alaska but with the earmark for the bridge to nowhere taken out of it. So they got the money but without the designation for the bridge to nowhere. And Sarah Palin accepted the money, she did not build the bridge to nowhere because it was at that point a national laughing stock. She used some of the money to build another bridge to almost nowhere and used the rest of the money for other things, but she didn't return the money to the government.

MARTIN: So she said thanks and thanks.

Ms. NOVAK: Yes.

MARTIN: Brendan Nyhan, you and your colleague Jason Reifler have been researching the question of whether all these fact checking really does any good. And you concluded that refuting a false claim can actually reinforce the belief in the original false statement. Why?

Mr. NYHAN: We're not exactly sure but what we think is happening is people are hearing these claims. And the ones who want to believe in the false claim, when they hear this correction, what they're doing is thinking of all the reasons it might not be true. So you're actually challenging them and they're coming up with all the reasons why they should really believe in misperception in the first place, and in the end that can actually make the misperception worse.

MARTIN: Now, is this everybody? Is this a phenomenon you've observed across all voter groups or just some voter groups?

Mr. NYHAN: Well, the backfire effect we're talking about in the series of experiments that we did, we only found among conservatives. But what we found - but we only did, you know, about four experiments and it's certainly possible that liberals do the same thing and we didn't look at the right issues. But what we did find was a cross ideological spectrum, liberals and conservatives both the corrections were ineffective when they received them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking with Viveca Novak of FactCheck.org, and researcher Brendan Nyhan about truth squading the presidential campaigns and whether it makes any difference. Brendan, do you think it could be because of who is giving, who is doing the debunking? Is it that conservatives perhaps of such a distrust of the mainstream media that they just think that if you're telling it, I'm not believing it?

Mr. NYHAN: You know, we thought about that and actually - in our second set of experiments, we change the media source. Our first set had attributed the news articles we gave people to the associated press. And then we said, well, maybe this is something about trusting the media. So, we then randomly varied whether people saw and article attributed to the New York Times or the Fox News. Thinking that conservatives might be more likely to believe Fox news, and actually the evidence wasn't clear surprisingly enough. You know, people's beliefs may overwhelm everything else.

MARTIN: But it's interesting that there is a backlash effect that initially people - if they heard it once, they were skeptical but if you repeated it and said, you know what? It's not true. It may then more likely to believe the original untruth. I guess that's the part that's kind of mind bending truth to me.

Mr. NYHAN: It's incredibly depressing, and it's incredibly personally depressing for me because in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I used to co-edit a website called Vinsanity(ph). It was a nonpartisan fact checker that was similar to what Viveca does. And so, I spent a lot of my life doing what she does and to hear that it often is infective is very troubling.

MARTIN: Viveca, what about that?

Mr. NOVAK: Well, we've seen research like this, and it's true. Sometimes we feel like we're banging our heads against the wall but we're also heartened by the fact that there seems to be so much interest right now. I mean, we could spend all of our days doing media interviews morning to night now because there's so much interest in what's going on and the falsehoods that are being told out there. We have a subscription base. Subscriptions are free incidentally at www.factcheck.org, but it's - it just is a notification every time we post a new article and it had been hovering around 67,000 for the last few years. Just in the last month it shot up to 80,000 which indicates to me that you know it may not be a large group of people but we view ourselves as sort of a consumer advocate for voters and it shows that some people are interested in finding out what's true and what's not.

MARTIN: And Brenden you were saying that you think it might be just in your study that the subject that you picked might have had a particular bias to it? It was the Bush administration's pre-war claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the one group was given a reputation that the report that Iraq did not have these weapons before the U.S. invaded and so, you're thinking that perhaps if it had been something that perhaps liberals want to believe that they might have the same the effect or you're just not sure?

Mr. NYHAN: That's right. We did a study where we looked at liberal misperceptions about President Bush's policy on embryonic stem cell research and what we found there was that they didn't listen to the correction, but there wasn't a backlash effect either.

MARTIN: Do you think that anything that - if you believe that the facts should matter? Is there anything you think that the media can or should do, or that campaigns can or should do to repair the damage from once a falsehood is broadcast or printed and repeated?

Mr. NYHAN: You know, I guess what I tend to fall back on right now is the idea that even if the public is hard to convince that there is something to the idea that you're embarrassing the campaigns publicly. You're embarrassing them in front of, you know, all the reporters who read factcheck.org for instance. And that cumulatively over time as more and more people become aware of this pattern of, you know, false claims for instance in recent weeks by the McCain campaign that the combination of that turning into a narrative, or the threat of that turning into narrative may eventually cause them to pull back, but we'll see.

MARTIN: Viveca you're not in the should business, but do you have some thoughts about this? I mean clearly you do the work because you think the work is important, you think the facts should matter. Do you think there's any way that those could be framed without the media itself becoming advocates, you know and...

Ms. NOVAK: Yeah, it's difficult to know, I mean we do sometimes wonder what we, you know, take a little heart in is that although we know that there is research showing that the brain tends to want to believe everything it hears and it takes some work to overcome that. That there do seem to be a lot of people interested in doing that work right now, we had one point seven million visits to our website last week. So, you know, I don't know how much of a difference it's making but we're trying. We're going to keep trying.

MARTIN: Viveca Novak is the Deputy Director of factcheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Brenden Nyhan is a PhD at Duke University and as he told you he's a former blogger at spinsanity, a political rhetoric watchdog. I thank you both so much for speaking with is.

Ms. NOVAK: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. NYHAN: Thank you.

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