Bunk Busters Unravel the Art of Spin As Washington politicians and spin doctors gear up for a new campaign season, the founders of FactCheck.org are offering a decoder ring for separating fact from disinformation in a new book, unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.
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Bunk Busters Unravel the Art of Spin

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Bunk Busters Unravel the Art of Spin

Bunk Busters Unravel the Art of Spin

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The election campaign season is starting earlier than ever. We're already being bombarded with claims or charges, some exaggerated, some not, from candidates and their spinmeisters. Even if we know we are being seduced or spun, it's hard to figure out where the truth ends and the falsehood begins.

Well, "help is on the way," to quote a current political figure. Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson are the creators of the Web site FactCheck.org and the authors of "unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Mr. Jackson is in the studio with me and Ms. Jamieson joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (Creator, FactCheck.org; Co-author, "unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation"): Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS JACKSON (Creator, FactCheck.org; Co-author, "unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation"): Good to be here.

YDSTIE: Now you call spin a polite word for deception. Is it always that nefarious, or is it sometimes just putting your best interpretation on events, or the best face on a bad debate performance by your boss?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, putting your best foot forward is a form of deception. You don't want people to see that that other foot is scuffed. But our definition of spin is twisting the facts or misstating them in a way that gives people a wrong impression.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. You describe different forms that spin can take, from subtle omissions to outright lies. Sketch out for us some ways we're deceived on a regular basis.

Mr. JACKSON: People were spun, I was spun when I first heard this statement by the Bush campaign in the 2004 election, repeated over and over again that John Kerry voted to cut intelligence spending after the first attack on the World Trade Center.

In my mind, I'm seeing the first airplane on 9/11, and I had to go back and listen more carefully until I realized they were talking about 1993 and that truck bomb that went off in the basement.

And, in fact, John Kerry had voted to support intelligence spending regularly for years before 9/11 and after, and yet our polling at the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed majorities of voters went to the polls believing that John Kerry had voted to cut intelligence spending after 9/11, which is absolutely false.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. You know, if someone like you who pays such close attention to the factuality of ads or advertisements can be spun in that way, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Ms. JAMIESON: One of the things that we've tried to do on the book is to lay down some principles that invite us, as well as potential readers, to say here are the circumstances in which you ought to be more critical about what you're hearing - that is, before you accept the inference, stop and ask.

For example, in the case of the ad that Brooks is talking about, the principle would be, if it's scary, be wary. That's an ad that shows wolves on the screen and has scary music. And the wolves are obviously terrorists and they're going to come and get you.

(Soundbite of Bush-Cheney '04 ad, "Wolves")

Unidentified Woman: In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations.

YDSTIE: If you're afraid, you're rational process has just started kicking in the way they should. At some level, facts don't do at all. So even if you feel like you have the facts, you can - still be deceived.

Ms. JAMIESON: "unSpun" talks about the very strong psychological mechanisms at play by which once we have a clear belief, we seek out facts to support the belief. And so the psychological biases that are at play with all of us, with elites as well as non-elites, are, in fact, problematic for us as we try to get a grasp upon what we can reasonably deal with to draw inferences about candidates and about the relationship between what they say in governance.

Mr. JACKSON: We don't call our Web site TruthCheck.org. What I say is that I leave truth to theologians and philosophers and we would just like to get people to agree on what is a provable fact, and you can base whatever truth you want on that. But it's difficult to base good version of truth, I think, on false information.

YDSTIE: What about protections built into the system? Are there any protections that penalize people who make false claims in ads?

Mr. JACKSON: There is no federal truth in political advertising legislation. So, unfortunately, the public is under the impression, I think many people, that if they say it on TV there must be something to it or they wouldn't let them say that. Well, the fact is candidates have the legal right to lie to you just as much as they want.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. What…

Ms. JAMIESON: And we certainly don't want government getting in the way in saying to a candidate, well, you can't say that because who would trust the government to be the fair and neutral arbiter, and we do have a first amendment.

When ad watching or fact checking is done by the media in a local market, and it's done aggressively and consistently, we have evidence historically that the electorate will create a backlash against the ad that is deceptive and against the candidate. The problem, of course, is it's highly unlikely you're going to have fact checking across (unintelligible) your media at a high enough level that people would get the message.

YDSTIE: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Brooks Jackson runs the center's FactCheck.org Web site. Their book is "unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation." And thank you both very much.

Mr. JACKSON: My pleasure.

Ms. JAMIESON: You're welcome.

YDSTIE: To hear our guests reveal more tricks of the political advertising trade, visit our Web site, npr.org.

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