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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Faking News in the Illinois Governor Race

Oberweis uses made-up headlines against a rival in the GOP primary.


A Republican candidate in Illinois is running TV ads using fake headlines.

Jim Oberweis launched the ads against the frontrunner in the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Judy Baar Topinka. He accuses her of being part of a “culture of political corruption.” Besides Oberweis’ fakery, he misleads by resurrecting decade-old allegations that came to nothing.


Oberweis launched two ads March 1 attacking Topinka, saying “I want to end this culture of political corruption in the state of Illinois.” But as the Chicago Tribune first reported (and we confirmed for ourselves) all four newspaper headlines shown in Oberweis’s ad are fake, and never appeared in the newspapers pictured.

Oberweis for Governor Ad:

(On Screen: A folder labeled “Open Investigation: Illinois Treasurer’s Office” and a picture of Judy Barr Topinka. A magnifying glass scans over the picture.)

Announcer: Take a closer look at Judy Baar Topinka.

(Text: Federal Investigation)

Topinka is under investigation by federal agents. Her top aides ordered documents shredded.

(On Screen: St. Louis  Post Dispatch masthead with headline: Ordered to Destroy Document)

Announcer: When you take a closer look at Topinka, you’ll agree.

(On Screen: Chicago Tribune masthead with headline: Investigation Into Topinka)

It’s time for a new type of Governor, Jim Oberweis.

(On Screen: Jim Oberweis)

Oberweis: I want to be your Governor. I want to end this culture of political corruption in the state of Illinois. Together we can build a new Illinois, an economically strong Illinois, a proud Illinois free from political corruption.

(On Screen: Jim Oberweis, Republican for Governor. Paid for by Oberweis for Illinois)

False Implications

One ad that the Oberweis campaign simply calls “Ad ‘A,'” uses a made-up headline that exaggerates a decade-old allegation.

Fake: The ad shows a St. Louis Post Dispatch masthead with the headline “Ordered to Destroy Document” while the announcer says, “[Topinka’s] top aides ordered documents shredded.” The  Post Dispatch never ran such a headline.

Real: The ad refers to a story from nearly 11 years ago, a June 27, 1995 article that appeared on page 4A. The real headline reads: “Illinois Treasurer Aide is Accused; Loans, Hotel Investor’ List are Involved.”

The ad also misleads by claiming Topinka’s “aides” ordered the destruction of “documents,” when in fact only a single aide and a single document were involved. The document was not destroyed. Topinka made it public.

According to the very news article the ad cites, Topinka’s spokesman at the time said his superior, Topinka’s deputy, had ordered him to destroy a list of investors in a hotel project. But Topinka made it public after being told of the alleged destruction order.

Fake: The ad also shows the Chicago Tribune masthead with the headline, “Investigation Into Topinka.” The Tribune ran no such headline.

Real: The article in question was a June 2003 piece in the Tribune with a headline that reads: “Campaign probe of Topinka launched; U.S. subpoenas workers’ records.”

Oberweis’s ad also misleads by saying “Topinka is under investigation by federal agents, her top aide ordered documents shredded.” That falsely implies that she is currently under investigation on the old document-destruction matter, which is false. In fact, it is doubtful that any investigation is still open. Topinka, the Illinois State Treasurer, did come under federal scrutiny in 2003 after allegations were made that state employees had worked on state time for her successful re-election campaign the year before. Topinka’s campaign told FactCheck.org that all subpoenaed documents were provided to the FBI and they have yet, three years later, to hear back from investigators. An internal investigation into the matter was completed in 2003 but state law bars it from being publicly released unless misconduct is found.

A “Rotten” Deal?

Oberweis’s second ad, simply called “Ad ‘B,'” inaccurately portrays a real estate deal between the state of Illinois and several businessmen that can be traced back 12 years before Topinka was even in office.

Oberweis for Governor Ad:

(On Screen: A folder labeled “Open Investigation: Illinois Treasurer’s Office” and a picture of Judy Barr Topinka. A magnifying glass scans over the picture.)

Announcer: Take a closer look at Judy Baar Topinka.

(On Screen Text: Insider Deals)

(On Screen: Chicago Sun Times masthead with headline: $30 Million Sweetheart Deal)

Announcer: Topinka tried to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to insider friends. A deal so rotten the Republican Attorney General ordered it blocked.

(On Screen: The Journal Register masthead with headline: Attorney General Blocks Bad Deal)

Announcer: It’s time for a new kind of governor; Jim Oberweis.

(On Screen: Jim Oberweis)

Oberweis: In my lifetime, four former Illinois governors have been indicted or served time in prison.  As governor, I will not accept campaign contributions from companies doing business with the state of Illinois . I need your vote on March 21st.

(On Screen: Jim Oberweis Republican for Governor; Paid for by Oberweis for Illinois )

In 1982, the state made a loan to the businessmen to develop several commercial properties, notably a pair of hotels. By 1995, the debt had not been paid back and the hotels had become unprofitable according to several news reports from the time. Topinka, in her first year in office, made an offer to settle the $40 million debt for $10 million based on an appraisal done by Real Estate Analysis Corp. of Chicago that valued the state’s stake in the hotels at $11.7 million.

Fake: The Oberweis ad claims that Topinka “tried to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to insider friends,” while displaying the masthead of the Chicago Sun-Times with the banner headline, “$30 Million Sweetheart Deal.” No such headline ever appeared in the newspaper.

Real: The real headline appeared over an editorial (not a news story) on page 41 of the May 3, 1995 edition of the Sun-Times. It reads: “Sweetheart Deal Should Be Jilted.” The “insider friends,” the ad refers to are two of the hotel owners and prominent political activists and fundraisers, William F. Cellini and Gary Fears. However, the editorial does not draw any connections between Topinka and either Cellini or Fears. FactCheck.org reviewed other news coverage and campaign finance records and found no connection.

Fake: The ad continues with the fake headline, “Attorney General Blocks Bad Deal,” displayed below  The State Journal-Register’s masthead.

Real: The actual article headline reads, “Hotels’ debt deal blocked; Attorney General cites U of I study.”

While the fake headlines appear an announcer says the deal was “so rotten, the Republican Attorney General ordered it blocked.” The Republican Attorney General at the time, Jim Ryan, did indeed kill the deal offered by Topinka two months after it was made. But he didn’t call it “rotten.” Topinka had relied on an appraisal that turned out to be too low. The deal may be viewed as “bad,” as Ryan concluded at the time, but there were no indications or serious allegations of any foul play.

Ryan blocked the settlement based on a study done by University of Illinois financial experts which valued the properties at around $19 million — nearly double the amount of the appraisal Topinka used. The financial experts from the University of Illinois assigned blame to the competing auditors – not to Topinka. In a letter to the Chicago Sun Times they said: “we believe the treasurer has been misled by mistakes in the 1994 appraisal concerning the value of the state’s claims on the Springfield property.”  Topinka later withdrew her offer. The hotel owners sued, and ten years later, in June of 2005, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that Topinka was within her rights to withdraw the offer.

Culture of Deception

Campaigns often use real newspaper headlines in their TV ads to document their own statements and give them the credibility of a supposedly neutral third party. In our judgment, making up headlines and passing them off as real is a deception.

Oberweis campaign director Joe Wiegand admitted to us that the headlines were not real.  “Those aren’t headlines,” he said. “The text is excerpted from stories that appeared in those publications.” However, the words in the ad don’t appear verbatim in the body of the news stories either. They are the campaign’s paraphrases, and furthermore are used in a misleading way. They made it appear that newspapers were running front-page news stories about an ongoing investigation of document destruction and “corruption,” when that is far from true.

As these ads demonstrate, some political campaigns see no problem with this sort of deception. As Weigand told the Tribune,  “We are not printing a newspaper. We are doing a television advertisement.”

– by Brooks Jackson, Justin Bank and James Ficaro


Watch Oberweis Ad: “A”

Watch Oberweis Ad: “B”


Ofelia Casillas and Rick Pearson, “2 new television ads for Oberweis use made-up headlines,” Chicago Tribune 1 Mar 2006: 2.

Doug Finke, “Hotels’ debt deal blocked; Attorney General cites U of I study,” The State Journal-Register 12 July 1995.

“Sweetheart Hotel Deal Should Be Jilted,” editorial, Chicago Sun-Times 3 May 1995: 41.

Kevin McDermott, “Illinois Treasurer Aide is Accused; Loans, Hotels Investors’ List are Involved,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 27 Jun 1995: 4A.

John Chase, “Campaign probe of Topinka launched; U.S. subpoenas workers’ records,” Chicago Tribune 5 Jun 2003, final ed.: 1C.

John Chase, “Topinka welcomes probe of her office; Treasurer says it’s ‘good news,'” Chicago Tribune 6 June 2003, final ed.: 3W.

Doug Finke, “Hotel-Loan Lawsuit Dismissed; State Supreme Court rules case must be pursued in Court of Claims,” The State Journal-Register   4 June 2005: 1.

Adriana Colindres, “Candidate Wants Loan Forgiveness Agreement Halted,” The State Journal-Register  9 Sept 1998: 9.