By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — For the past two election cycles, news organizations have devoted increasing resources to fact-checking political claims. The past week vividly demonstrated the limits of that effort.
Two campaign ads — one from each side, both misleading in several respects — occupied much of the week’s political discussion. An ad by Mitt Romney’s campaign charged that a decision by President Barack Obama would “gut” welfare reform. An ad by the “super PAC” supporting Obama linked Romney to the cancer death of a woman whose husband lost his health insurance after Romney’s firm bought the steel mill where he worked.
Both ads were labeled as untrue by fact-checking groups. At week’s end, both campaigns appeared unabashed. Many Democrats, in fact, have reveled in the evidence that their side could be as “tough” as the Republicans, who in past campaigns were perceived by Democrats as being more willing to stretch the truth to make a political point.
“We’re in a new phase: Fact-checking alone is not enough. The campaigns seem able to override it,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has studied how journalists attempt to referee campaigns.
Indeed, with the ad about the cancer death, the Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, appeared to have gone the fact-checkers one better — exploiting attention to the ad’s veracity to get free air time for a spot that has not appeared anywhere as a paid commercial. The ad has been replayed extensively on television news segments that have debated it and has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube. The largest number of views have come from five states — California and four election battlegrounds, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, according to Priorities.
The Democratic super PAC has raised considerably less money than its Republican counterpart, making the free publicity particularly valuable.
Asked whether the prospect of controversy leading to free publicity was part of the calculation, Paul Begala, senior adviser to Priorities, did not hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re provocateurs.”
“It’s a new wrinkle on an old technique,” said Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, who noted that in the 1964 race, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign used a similar ploy to gain extensive coverage of an ad that juxtaposed a little girl pulling daisy petals with the countdown to an atom-bomb explosion. That ad, designed to suggest that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a warmonger, only aired once as a commercial. Then as now, “the underlying goal is to make your opponent deny something he didn’t want to have to bring up,” Rosenstiel said.
The current Democratic ad features Joe Soptic, who once worked at GST Steel, a mill in Kansas City, Mo. Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, bought the mill in the early 1990s, merging it into a new company that went bankrupt in 2001. More than 700 workers were fired. Along with their jobs, they lost health insurance, severance and a chunk of pension benefits. Bain partners received about $50 million on their initial investment, a 100 percent gain.
In the ad, Soptic suggests his wife was afraid to seek medical care because of the cost.
“I don’t know how long she was sick,” he says, “and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance.
“And then one day she became ill, and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia, and that’s when they found the cancer,” he continues. “She passed away in 22 days.”
The ad does not include the fact that after Soptic was laid off, his wife, Ilyona “Ranae” Soptic, still had her own health insurance for a year or two through her job. Nor does it note that five years passed between the closing of the mill and her illness.
Bill Burton, the former Obama aide who heads Priorities, has publicly denied that the ad suggests Romney was responsible for Soptic’s death. “We would never make that case,” he said on CNN.
Meantime, the Romney campaign’s ad, which has aired extensively in swing states, claims that Obama has “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” put into place in 1996 under President Bill Clinton. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” Romney has echoed those claims in speeches this week.
In fact, the administration announced July 12 that it would consider requests from states that want to experiment with ways to find “more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.” Five states, including Utah and Nevada, both with Republican governors, had asked for that flexibility. The policy would not end work requirements nor change central elements of the 1996 welfare reform law such as the time limits on how long a person can receive welfare.
Whether voters will react to either ad remains unknown. Political scientist John Geer of Vanderbilt University, who has been testing voter reaction to ads, has found that some of Obama’s ads attacking Romney have moved voters. But Romney’s attacks, so far, have not.
“People know what they think of Obama. Their judgments can’t easily be moved,” he said.
The ads do connect to some valid political arguments.
As Begala notes, the Priorities ad “shows the consequences of the economic decisions” that companies like Bain make in the interests of economic efficiency.
And Obama almost certainly would give states more freedom to shape welfare-to-work programs than Romney would. In other contexts, Republicans argue that programs are better run at the state level than from Washington, but in the case of welfare, they fear liberal states might loosen work requirements.
But in the thrust and cut of the campaigns, those larger policy arguments can easily be buried under invective.
“They’ve gone from what started out as petty distortions and untruths to unbelievable exaggerations that diminish the office of president,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney senior advisor, told reporters Friday, referring to the Obama camp. “I don’t think a world champion limbo dancer could get any lower than the Obama campaign right now.”
The Obama campaign responded by attacking the Romney campaign’s “faux outrage.”
“Mitt Romney won the Republican primary only by tearing down each of his opponents with ruthlessly negative campaigning,” said campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. “His campaign has questioned whether the president understands what it is to be American, attacked his patriotism, and is currently running an ad that a former president (Clinton) and authors of the welfare-to-work legislation have called a flat-out lie. When the Romney campaign finally reaches the high ground, we look forward to greeting them there.”