Web site cuts through political spin


President George W. Bush accuses Democratic Senator John Kerry of casting 98 Senate votes to increase taxes. John Kerry says new jobs being created on the Bush administration’s watch are paying workers $9,000 less than old ones. Are these statements true, or are they simply political spin designed to win votes?

According to the people at the nonpartisan organization Annenberg Political Fact Check and its web site, www.factcheck.org, it’s the latter.

“ It’s always true that people who run for office and the people who design their TV ads and write their speeches are not out there to inform you—they’re out there to persuade you,” says Brooks Jackson, who heads up Fact Check. “Campaigns are not a learned seminar in public policy. Voters need to realize that anything goes.”

And that means anything—from whoppers like Kerry’s supposed support for a 50 cent a gallon gas price increase (while he voiced support for it twice 10 years ago, he never voted for an increase and opposes an increase now) to Bush’s statement that outsourcing jobs “makes sense” (administration officials actually said that contracting for white-collar jobs overseas is one aspect of free trade that creates jobs in the U.S.). Jackson points out that politicians wouldn’t dare say things that are obviously untrue, but instead opt for exaggerated statements with a grain of truth to them. “The wording is very clever,” says Jackson. “Strictly speaking, it’s not literally untrue, and yet it’ll be worded in a way to leave people with an impression that can be totally false.”

So it’s Fact Check’s job to debunk myths and suspect factual claims, whenever they can document it (using Congressional records, press conference transcripts, etc.) and wherever the campaign conversation takes place—from TV ads to interviews to public debates. The staff posts fact-checking articles on the web site every few days and 10 months’ worth are stored in the site’s online archives. Jackson says that Fact Check also steps in to set the record straight and assist voters when Bush and Kerry flatly contradict each other.

Fact Check is run out of the Washington D.C.-based Annenberg Public Policy Center, a Penn hub devoted to conducting and distributing research on everything from political communications and campaign finance to children’s television and tobacco advertising. Jackson is a seasoned journalist who also pioneered ad-watch and fact-check segments on CNN.

As a longtime Washington reporter, Jackson has seen a few election cycles, but says that this race has been the longest general election campaign in memory. Has the longer election cycle made people more savvy about political spin or have better marketing tools succeeded in swaying the minds of the electorate? Says Jackson, both seem to be true. According to a May, 2004 study from the National Annenberg Election Survey—the largest academic election poll that is tracking the presidential campaign—even Americans who say they don’t learn from political ads do absorb and believe what they see. And Jackson adds that the phenomenon of attack ads from 527s—organizations that run ads but do not support a candidate directly—is hardly a recent development. As early as 1980, a similar group, the National Conservative Political Action Committee ran an ad calling pro-choice politicians “babykillers.”

“ What’s new is the sheer volume of this stuff,” says Jackson. “The incentive in their purpose is to attack.”

Originally published on September 23, 2004