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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

An Avalanche of Misinformation

Both sides run lots of new ads with plenty of distortions, new and recycled.


With election day approaching the tempo of ads is increasing, but not the level of factual accuracy. Both sides are making false or misleading claims in their ads.

A Republican party ad twists a Kerry quote about terrorism. A Kerry ad implies middle-income taxpayers are paying more taxes than “the wealthiest,” which isn’t true. A Bush ad repeats a baseless claim that Kerry’s health plan will wrench medical decisions away from doctors and patients. Another Kerry ad again blames Bush for long-standing tax incentives for companies keeping capital overseas.


Terrorism a Nuisance?

RNC Ad: “Who Knows”

Announcer: John Kerry says we have to get back to the place where terrorists are a nuisance, like gambling and prostitution.

(On Screen: Picture of Kerry. “Terrorists are a nuisance.”)

Announcer: Terrorists a nuisance? Terrorists have declared war on America, brutally murdering Americans. Against terrorism, is John Kerry too weak? He voted against funding our troops, denying them the safety of body armor. What would John Kerry do as president? No one knows. John Kerry doesn’t even know. The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

A Republican party ad appeared this week inviting viewers to think Kerry considers terrorism a “nuisance” and suggests he’s too “weak.”

The image on screen shows a picture of Kerry with the words: “Terrorists are a nuisance. . .  like gambling and prostitution.”

But Kerry never said he considered terrorism to be a nuisance, he said Americans would feel safe once terrorism was reduced to a nuisance. (The announcer correctly paraphrases Kerry as saying “we have to get back” to such a condition, but the visual images in the ad will overpower the announcer’s spoken words for many, and the announcer goes on as though Kerry actually had said terrorism isn’t much of a threat at present.)

Kerry’s words are taken from a New York Times Magazine interview published Oct. 10. When asked what it would take to make Americans feel safe again, Kerry actually said this:

Kerry: We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. . . As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.

That’s actually not much different from what Bush himself said Aug. 30 on the NBC Today Show:

Q: Do you really think we can win this war of terror–on terror, for example, in the next four years?

Bush: I have never said we can win it in four years.

Q: No, I’m just saying, can we win it? Do you see that?

Bush: I don’t–I don’t think you can win it, but I think you can create conditions so that the–those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world, let’s put it that way.

Both men were attacked by partisan opponents for expressing these sentiments, and have since grown less candid about the prospects for eradicating terrorism entirely. Both have hardened their words. Bush says he will “win” the war on terror. Kerry says he “will kill the terrorists.”

The Bigger Share of Taxes?

Kerry-Edwards Ad:
“The Truth About Taxes” 

Kerry: Here’s the truth about taxes. After nearly four years under George Bush, the middle class is paying the bigger share of America’s tax burden and the wealthiest are paying less. It’s wrong. We need to cut taxes on the middle class, not raise them. We also need to get healthcare costs under control and lower our nation’s deficit. I don’t believe the wealthy need another tax cut. I believe ordinary Americans need someone who will fight for them. I’m John Kerry and I approved this message.

Kerry claims in an ad that appeared this week that “the middle class is paying the bigger share of America’s tax burden and the wealthiest are paying less.” Actually, all income groups have seen their burden reduced. Kerry’s wording could lead some to think middle-income taxpayers are paying more of the tax burden than upper-income taxpayers, which is false.

As we pointed out before in an article on another Kerry ad, figures from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center show that even after Bush’s tax cuts, the most affluent 20 percent of taxpayers still pay 63 percent of all US taxes, including income, payroll and excise taxes. Those in the middle 20 percent pay 10.5 percent, a much smaller share. So, strictly speaking, the highest -income taxpayers still pay by far the larger share of taxes than the other 80 percent.

What Kerry has said previously is that middle-income taxpayers pay a larger share — meaning a larger share than they did before and not a larger share than more affluent groups. And it’s true that the middle 20 percent has seen their share of the tax burden go up — by 2/10ths of one percent — even as their taxes have come down. Those between the top and middle groups have seen their share of the burden go up 0.7 percent. On the other hand, those in the lowest two groups have seen very slight declines in the share of all taxes they pay as well as in the amount of taxes they pay, something Kerry doesn’t mention when talking about the burden on the “middle.”

“Bureaucrats, not Doctors”

Bush-Cheney ’04 Ad:
“Your Doctor”

Announcer: John Kerry and liberals in Congress have a health care plan. It includes the IRS, Treasury Department, and several massive, new government agencies. Your doctor? In there somewhere, but not in charge. This $1.5 trillion government program puts bureaucrats, not your doctor, in charge of your health care decisions. One more reason we can’t risk the liberals in Congress and John Kerry.

Bush: I’m George W. Bush and I approved this message.

A Bush ad that started airing Oct. 13 repeats the claim that Kerry’s health-care plan will create “massive new government agencies” and put “bureaucrats, not your doctor, in charge of your health-care decisions.” We’ve examined this claim before and found no evidence to support it. Kerry’s plan would expand existing programs such as Medicaid to millions who aren’t currently covered by any insurance, and would create expensive federal subsidies to bring down the cost of private insurance by paying for 75 percent of “catastrophic” costs exceeding $30,000 per patient in any given year.

Republicans have argued that this would inevitably lead to increased federal oversight and even “rationing” of health care, but neutral experts we consulted don’t agree. The Lewin Group, an independent firm that is often hired both by Republicans and Democrats to analyze health-care issues, estimates that under Kerry’s plan 97 percent of all those who currently have insurance will simply keep the coverage they already have. For additional details, see our Oct. 4 article.

A Choice of Policy

Kerry Edwards Ad: “Incentives”

Kerry: The President has made a choice of a policy that actually uses your tax money to reward the company that goes overseas. You explain the common sense of that to me, ladies and gentlemen. You’re giving an incentive to a company to go overseas. And when I’m President, my choice, we’re closing those tax loopholes and we’re using the money to invest in companies that make jobs here. I’m John Kerry and I approve this message.

A Kerry ad running heavily last week after first airing Oct. 6 says “the president has made a choice that actually uses your tax money to reward the company that goes overseas.” But in fact, Bush’s “choice” has been to maintain the status quo, opposing a Kerry proposal to change the law.

As we explained earlier, Kerry is referring to a feature of the US tax code that has been there since the corporate income tax was first adopted, through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Economists say it is a relatively minor factor in the decisions companies make to locate jobs overseas. Even Kerry admits his own tax-change proposal won’t end the “outsourcing” of jobs overseas. For more, see our July 29 article.



Matt Bai, “Kerry’s Undeclared War,” The New York Times Magazine, 10 Oct 2004: 38.

NBC News Transcripts, “President George W. Bush discusses the economy, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq,” 30 Aug 2004.