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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fake News, Nebraska Style

Senate candidates from both parties stretch credibility in their latest ads.


In his most recent ad, we find that Republican Senate candidate Pete Ricketts inaccurately uses citations from news reports to draw his own, more incendiary conclusions. The words displayed are not in the articles, are not representative of the articles as a whole, and are more inflammatory than any words in the actual articles.

In an earlier ad, the campaign used images of newspaper clippings to splice its own conclusions among ten-year-old news reports for “creative reasons,” according to a spokesperson.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson’s campaign responds with a somewhat more accurate ad, but it is also stuck in the past, using a decade-old media report about long vanquished opponents.

The state’s Democratic Party joins the fray with an ad attacking Ricketts for trying to lower the property value of his home for tax purposes. Ricketts did try to lower his house valuation, but so have many Nebraskans — including Ben Nelson.


On July 28th, Ricketts released an ad entitled, “A New Low.” The ad begins with an accurate clip from a July 20th editorial by longtime Nebraska political commentator Harold W. Anderson. Ricketts then takes a few liberties in paraphrasing sections of other news reports.

Pete Ricketts Ad:
“A New Low”

Announcer: The former World-Herald publisher says that in attacking Pete Ricketts, the Democrats tactics have sunk to as low a level as any in Nebraska politics. Ben Nelson’s attacking Pete Ricketts property valuation challenge, yet Nelson challenged the valuation on his own Omaha home when it was assessed below his purchase price. Nelson also challenged the valuation of his Washington, DC home three times – winning three more reductions. Yet, unbelievably, Ben Nelson is still attacking Pete Ricketts.

Ricketts: I’m Pete Ricketts and I approve this message.

Misrepresenting News Reports

The ad shows a Journal Star masthead and the date July 24th with the words “Nelson attacks Ricketts.”  The announcer tells us that “Ben Nelson is attacking Pete Ricketts’ property valuation challenges.” It’s true that Nelson has been jabbing Ricketts on this — but the article cited is predominantly about Ricketts’ position on a national sales tax with a scant mention of the valuation issue at the end.  The real headline reflects the true focus of the article: “Nelson raps Ricketts on tax reform issue.”

The ad cites the Omaha World Herald on July 27th for the words, “Ben Nelson is still attacking Pete Ricketts.” Ricketts campaign spokesperson Jessica Moenning explained in an email that since no quotation marks were used around the words, it was fine for the campaign to cite the article while drawing its own conclusions. But the  article is primarily  reporting on a Ricketts ad answering Nelson about the valuation issue. There is no mention of Nelson “attacking” Ricketts in the article.  Once again, the real headline reflects the true focus of the article: “Republicans: Nelson fought valuations, too.”

Finding a Pattern

This isn’t the first time the Ricketts campaign has used newspaper clips misleadingly in ads. On June 29th, Ricketts released an ad entitled “Nelson Attacks.” The ad displays a barrage of charges against Nelson superimposed on newsprint. The first two say “Ben Nelson attacking Pete Ricketts,” and “Nelson attacked Chuck Hagel and Don Stenberg.” Neither actually exist. A database search of newspapers found no matches. Once again campaign spokesperson Jessica Moenning said that if there were no quotation marks around the words, they were “assertions of the campaign.” When asked by FactCheck why the claims appeared on newspaper imagery she cited “creative reasons,” and “consistency with the next frames.”

Then more clips appear, with the announcer saying that “the press reported that Nelson took his campaign into the mud with straight out lies.” What the ad doesn’t say is that these reports are ten years old.

In a tightly contested 1996 race for U.S. Senate between Nelson and Senate colleague Chuck Hagel (R), the Omaha World Herald released an editorial advising Nelson to “abandon his unfortunate detour into the mud.” However, the “press report,” the campaign cites for its reference to “straight out lies,” is actually a quote from Hagel reported in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Journal Star: “Everything the governor has said about me are straight out lies,” the GOP senatorial nominee declared at a press conference in the rotunda of the capitol, where he was joined by six elected Republican officials.

Pete Ricketts Ad:
“Nelson Attacking Again”

Announcer: Ben Nelson attacking Pete Ricketts. When Nelson attacked Chuck Hagel and Don Stenberg, the press reported Nelson took his campaign into the mud with straight out lies. Why’s Nelson attacking? Because Ben Nelson’s election puts Democrats in control of the Senate, which means higher taxes, liberal values. Pete Ricketts wants conservative change in Washington. Cutting Taxes. A balanced budget. Protecting our values. Ben Nelson: negative attacks, politics as usual.
\Ricketts: I’m Pete Ricketts, I approve this message.

Nelson Parries

In response, Nelson’s campaign launched an ad on July 29th containing two specific media references.  The ad shows still images from the Ricketts campaign with quoted media citations underneath.   “Newspapers say Pete Ricketts’ negative attacks are superficial, weak, and twist the truth,” the announcer says.

Ben Nelson Ad:
“Tax Cuts”

Announcer: Newspapers say Pete Ricketts negative attacks are superficial, weak, and twist the truth. Because the record proves Ben Nelson cut taxes 42 times as governor, cut millions in unnecessary spending, and balanced eight straight budgets. As our Senator, Ben brought Republicans and Democrats together to cut taxes for 650,000 Nebraskans. And President Bush praised Sen. Nelson for helping make the tax cuts possible.

Nelson: I’m Sen. Ben Nelson and I approve this ad.

Ironically, the state Republican party released a statement accusing Nelson of manipulating news coverage in his ads:

GOP: In his latest television advertisement, Ben Nelson has used fabricated headlines and quotes – sometimes attributed to legitimate news sources – to deliberately mislead voters about Pete Ricketts.

The GOP statement says the words “Twisting the Truth” do not appear in the Journal Star on January 30, 1996 as the ad indicates. They do. The Nelson campaign supplied FactCheck with an editorial from the Journal Star from that day titled, “Republicans twisting the truth.” However, the use of the quote in the Nelson ad is misleading. The editorial condemns attacks on Nelson’s tax record as governor. While the Ricketts campaign is itself guilty of using ancient clips, it is disingenuous to use a decade old criticism of former political foes under the umbrella of “Pete Ricketts’ negative attacks.”

The other citation is on point. The GOP statement complains that the words “Superficial” and “Weak” are taken out of context from an editorial in the Grand Island Independent in June, but we disagree.  The author used the words to describe Ricketts’ use of the label “liberal” in an ad attacking Nelson.  The Nelson ad’s use of them is fair and accurate.

Democratic Distortions

In the midst of these dueling media buys, the Nebraska Democratic Party released an ad attacking Ricketts on July 26th entitled, “Less.” In the ad, the party accurately cites an Omaha World Record editorial that said Ricketts’ ads “insult the intelligence of Nebraska voters.”

Nebraska Democratic Party Ad:
“Pay Less Taxes”

Announcer: More misleading attacks from Pete Ricketts. Its why newspapers say his ads insult the intelligence of Nebraska voters. Facts show its Ricketts who tried to dodge paying his fair share of property taxes. Even worse, Ricketts wants to impose a national sales tax that cuts his taxes in half, and raises taxes on 95% of Nebraskans. Under Pete’s plan, he pays less, you pay more. The Nebraska Democratic Party is responsible for the content of this advertising.

However, the ad goes on to claim, tenuously, that Ricketts “tried to dodge paying property taxes.” As evidence, it points out that in 2002, Ricketts filed to lower the valuation of his home which he bought for $1.2 million, to a little over $600,000. The state decided to split the difference and assess the value of the house at around $900,000.

Ricketts wasn’t dodging his property taxes, rather he was trying to lower the amount of taxes he paid. As evidenced by the judgment of the state, he was right, though overly ambitious. In early July, Ricketts again unsuccessfully challenged a further valuation of his home amid much criticism from Democrats.

But, Ricketts wasn’t alone – many Nebraskans challenge the valuation of their homes, including Ben Nelson. A Ricketts spokesperson was quoted in the World Record saying that 24,000 Nebraskans challenged the valuation of their homes this year. Nelson did so in 1985, and since then he has challenged the value of his home in Washington, DC three times.

As a Democrat, Nelson has no easy task trying to keep his seat in the conservative Cornhusker state, and the Republicans have their eye on this real estate. Because airtime in the state is relatively cheap, both parties and their candidates are expected to inundate voters for months to come as they vie for control of the Senate.


Watch Ricketts Ad: “A New Low”

Watch Ricketts Ad: “Nelson Attacking Again”

Watch Nelson Ad: “Tax Cuts”

Watch NEDP Ad: “Pay Less Taxes”


Anderson, Harold A., “Democratic Party crossed the line with unfair Ricketts ad,” Omaha World-Herald. 20 July 2006.

Ayoub, George, “Label Makers Missing Larger, Critical Point,” Grand Island Independent. 20 June 2006.

Tysver, Robynn, “Republicans: Nelson fought valuations, too,” Omaha World-Herald. 27 July 2006.

Walton, Don, “Nelson Raps Ricketts on tax reform ideas,” Lincoln Journal Star. 25 July 2006.

Walton, Don, “Hagel, ohter Republicans criticize integrity attacks from Nelson,” Lincoln Journal-Star.  31 Oct. 1996.

GOP Cites Nelson’s property tax protests,” AP. 28 July 2006

“Nelson Abandons the High Road As Nebraska Senate Race Tightens,” Omaha World-Herald. 27 July 1996.

“Republicans twisting the truth,” Lincoln Journal Star. 30 Jan. 1996.

Ben Nelson ads show pattern of deception and dishonesty,” Press Release, Nebraska Republican Party. 31 July 2006.