The mid-term elections of 2006 brought an unprecedented barrage of advertising containing much that is false or misleading. We found examples of disregard for facts and honesty – on both sides – that would get a reporter fired in a heartbeat from any decent news organization.
Candidates, parties and independent groups have faked quotes, twisted words, misrepresented votes and positions, and engaged in rank fear-mongering and outright fabrication. Here we review some of the worst deceptions we found.
We haven’t addressed every false or misleading statement in 2006 House and Senate campaigns – there were too many of them and our resources are too limited for that. For the full record of our work please refer to the earlier articles on the home page and in our archive.
Disregard for Facts
Much of what we found went well beyond the bounds of honest advocacy, and would warrant dismissal for any reporter who tried to pass it off as an accurate news story. We believe reasonable citizens will also find these distortions to be unacceptable even in political advertising, where a certain amount of puffery is expected and tolerated. It’s one thing to present your own case in the best light and to point out the flaws in your opponent. But a lot of what we encountered was far from the truth. Some examples:
- In Ohio, a Democratic ad said Republican House candidate Joy Padgett was investigated “for abusing her position to help her own business.” The truth is the investigation was triggered by an anonymous accusation and the investigators concluded there was “no substance to the allegation.” See “When Democrats Attack ” from Nov. 2.
- In New York, a Republican ad accused Democratic House candidate Michael Arcuri, a prosecutor, of letting an accused rapist go free because he “failed to indict him in time.” The truth is that Arcuri was left with no choice when the victim and another key witness didn’t show up. The man was free eight days before Arcuri eventually indicted him and secured a guilty plea to a reduced charge. See “Republican Mudslinging On An Industrial Scale” from Oct. 27.
- Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri ran ads attributing unflattering words about his opponent to the Kansas City Star. The truth is the words were those of partisans and critics, whom the Star was quoting along with others as part of their balanced coverage. See “Talent For Deception” from Oct. 21.
- Nebraska Republican Senate candidate Pete Ricketts used newspaper headlines in one of his TV ads, but the truth is the headlines were faked. A spokesman explained this was due to “creative reasons.” See “Fake News, Nebraska Style” from Aug. 2.
- In Florida, a Democratic ad accused GOP Rep. Clay Shaw of profiting from a “drug deal” by buying and selling a pharmaceutical company’s stock while voting for the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The truth is the company in question was not among those that could have benefited from the new Medicare program. See “A ‘Drug Deal’ Gone Bad” from Oct. 16.
In addition to a general disregard for factual accuracy, we also found systematic attempts to mislead voters about some of the most important issues of the day. Republicans repeatedly mischaracterized Democratic positions on dealing with terrorism. Democrats continued to claim that the Medicare drug benefit is somehow bad for seniors when in fact it saves them hundreds of dollars per year on average.
Terrorism & Iraq
- A national Republican ad suggested in not-very-subtle terms that voting Democratic carries a risk of death in a nuclear attack. It quoted a bin Laden lieutenant boasting that “we purchased some suitcase bombs,” followed by images of al Qaeda fighters and a graphic image of a rapidly expanding orange-yellow globe resembling a nuclear fireball. The ad offered no evidence that Democrats would be any less zealous in keeping nuclear weapons from the hands of terrorists, however. And experts say it is improbable that al Qaeda or any terrorist organization actually has or could get a workable nuclear device. See “‘Daisy’ Redux” from Oct. 20.
- A Democratic-leaning group ran false ads accusing a few Republican senators of voting to deny modern body armor for troops in Iraq. In fact, the amendment cited by the ad didn’t mention body armor, and passing it wouldn’t have allowed the Pentagon to acquire a single additional armored vest: It already was buying as many as the economy could produce. See “False Claims About Body Armor” from Sept. 20. A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad repeated this false claim even after we de-bunked it. See “Accusations Without Evidence and Moldy Bunk in Virginia .”
- Republicans raised similar false body-armor claims against Democrats. For one example see “‘XXX’ Marks the Spot Where Campaign Ads Head South” from Sept. 27.
- Republicans repeatedly mischaracterized the Democratic position on President Bush’s National Security Agency eavesdropping program, which is being conducted without court warrants or review. An ad by the pro-Bush group Progress for America falsely gave those wiretaps credit for the thwarting of a hijack plot that was actually uncovered by Scotland Yard following up an informant’s tip. See “A Misleading Appeal To Fear” from Sept. 8.
- Republican ads also have said that Democrats are against eavesdropping on terrorists, which isn’t true. It’s the lack of judicial oversight they object to. See “Hillary Clinton’s Voting Record Distorted” from Aug. 16.
- Another Republican distortion is a claim that Democrats are “against terrorist interrogation,” when their objection (shared by a number of Republicans) actually is to torture. See “New RNC Web Ad Blurs History” from Aug. 22.
Social Security & Medicare
Both sides made false or twisted claims about the government’s largest benefit programs, Social Security and Medicare.
- Several Republican ads claimed Democratic House candidates would “cut benefits for seniors” and “raise Social Security taxes ” on workers, when all they had said was that they endorsed the AARP’s approach to addressing Social Security’s enormous deficit by making “modest adjustments in future benefits” and getting “additional contributions from higher-income workers.” None were proposing cuts in current benefit levels. For more on this, see “Scaring Seniors on Social Security” from Oct. 17.
- Democrats repeatedly accused Republicans of voting to “raid the Social Security trust fund ,” based on their support for federal budgets that were in deficit. That’s nonsense. Deficits don’t affect Social Security benefits by one penny, and have no effect on the IOU’s that build up in the trust fund, either. See “Tired Old Trust Fund Bunk” from Oct. 25.
- Numerous Republican ads claimed Democrats wanted to “give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.” But nobody’s proposing paying a dollar of benefits to anyone while they are illegal. The ads mischaracterize Democratic support for current law, which allows immigrants to get credit for the Social Security taxes they paid while working illegally, but only if and when they become legal or gain citizenship and then become eligible to receive benefits. See “Republican Campaign Theme Debunked: Social Security for Illegal Immigrants” from Oct. 10.
- Democratic ads continue to misinform voters about the Medicare prescription drug benefit. One Florida ad said it is “bad for seniors.” See “A ‘Drug Deal’ Gone Bad” from Oct. 16. Several ads from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also attacked Republicans for supporting the plan because it prevents federal officials from negotiating with drug companies for volume discounts. But the ads fail to note that seniors enrolled in the plan are expected to save an average of several hundred dollars a year on their prescription drugs, and that most seniors report that their initial experience with the plan has been positive. See “When Democrats Attack” from Nov. 2.
This year, as in the 2004 campaign, a number of persons have asked us how candidates and other groups can get away with such deceitful advertising. The truth is that the law of libel is not a practical deterrent. There also is no federal “truth in political advertising” law on the books, nor is there likely to be such a law so long as the First Amendment stands. For a full discussion see “False Ads: There Oughtta Be A Law! Or – Maybe Not,” our Special Report from June 3, 2004. Our system of government leaves it to voters to sort out the truth from what they see and hear, with whatever help they can get from a free press.
(For footnotes see original articles)