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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sadly, Mostly True

McCain and Obama accuse each other of falsehoods, and both have good reason.


On the eve of their second presidential debate, McCain and Obama released TV ads accusing one another of untruthful attacks. Both are essentially accurate, though each tells only half the story.

McCain’s ad cites Obama spots that have falsely accused him of supporting a 50 percent cut in Social Security benefits, that twisted his words about deregulating health insurance markets and that falsely accused him of opposing stem-cell research.

Obama’s ad says McCain is resorting to "smears that have been proven false." It quotes news articles contradicting Palin’s accusation that Obama is "palling around with terrorists" and calls that attack an attempt to distract voters from economic issues.

We won’t attempt to assess which side is more deceitful, a task that would require subjective judgments about the degree of untruthfulness and the relative importance of each misleading statement. But, sadly, each side is correct to say the other has used false attacks.


TV spots released Oct. 7 by the McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden campaigns each accuse the other candidate of untruthfulness. Both were set to run on national television in the hours prior to the second of three scheduled presidential debates between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

[TET ]

McCain-Palin Ad: "Hypo"

Announcer: Who is Barack Obama?

KMOV TV Anchor (video): Obama’s presidential campaign is asking Missouri law enforcement to target anyone who lies or runs a misleading television ads.

Announcer: How hypocritical.

Obama’s Social Security attack was called "a falsehood."

His health care attack … "misleading".

Obama’s stem cell attack … "not true".

Barack Obama. He promised better. He lied.

McCain: I’m John McCain and I approve this message. [/TET]

‘He Lied’

The McCain ad starts with a clip of a Missouri TV news anchor who said on Sept. 23 that the Obama campaign is asking state law enforcement officials to "target anyone who lies or runs misleading television ads." The ad then accuses Obama of being "hypocritical," cites Obama ads that have been called untruthful by FactCheck.org and ABC News, and concludes, "He promised better. He lied."

Whether or not Obama "lied" is a matter we’ll leave to others to judge for themselves, since we have no way of reading minds or divining anyone’s intent. It is true that on Sept. 19 we called an Obama ad "a falsehood" for saying McCain supported cutting Social Security benefits in half, and it is also true that on Sept. 22 we called another Obama ad "misleading," because of the way it twisted McCain’s words about deregulating health insurance markets to allow policies to be purchased across state lines. And it is also true that ABC News’ Senior National Correspondent Jake Tapper said an Obama radio ad was "not true," when it said McCain  "opposed stem cell research." (We also said that ad was "wrong.")

While the ad criticizes Obama for being "hypocritical," it fails to mention that the very ABC News article that the McCain campaign cites actually criticizes McCain for misleading voters, too. And a casual look at our own Web site also reveals criticisms of both candidates.

The news clip featured in the ad also begs for explanation. It suggests that Obama is pushing friendly law enforcement officials to prosecute the McCain campaign for running false ads. The anchor was introducing a news report that quoted two local prosecutors who are part of an Obama-Biden "truth squad" in the state. The TV reporter said that "they … say they plan to respond immediately to any ads and statement that might violate Missouri ethics laws." That stirred up a strong reaction from Republicans who objected to what they called intimidation, after which one of the prosecutors who was quoted denied any intent to bring official charges. Jennifer Joyce, St. Louis circuit attorney, issued a statement saying “my sole purpose in participating in this initiative is about getting truthful information to the voters. This has never been or never will be about prosecuting people.” In any case, as we noted in a 2004 article, the First Amendment makes the rare state laws against false political claims all but impossible to enforce.


[TET ] Obama-Biden Ad: "The Subject"

Announcer: He’s out of ideas. Out of touch. And running out of time. 

But with no plan to lift our economy up, John McCain wants to tear Barack Obama down.

With smears that have been proven false.

Why? McCain’s own campaign admits that if the election is about the economy, he’s going to lose.

But as Americans lose their jobs, homes and savings, it’s time for a President who’ll change the economy.

Not change the subject.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approved this message. [/TET]


The Obama ad responds more generally, saying McCain has resorted to "smears" because "his own campaign admits that if the election is about the economy, he’s going to lose."

It is true that McCain began sinking in the polls, and Obama began rising, about the time the Bush administration sought a $700 billion rescue package from Congress amid widespread talk of a financial crisis and possible looming recession. The ad also cites a New York Daily News report from Oct. 5 that quoted an unnamed "top McCain strategist" on the reason that the McCain campaign was attacking Obama’s personal character:

New York Daily News, Oct. 5: McCain’s course correction reflects a growing case of nerves within his high command as the electoral map has shifted significantly in Obama’s favor in the past two weeks.

"It’s a dangerous road, but we have no choice," a top McCain strategist told the Daily News. "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose."

Appearing on screen are the words "A deliberate attempt to smear Obama," attributed to The Associated Press, and the word "false," credited to a CNN report. Though the ad does not mention it, both reports refer to the claim by McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that Obama is "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," a reference to William Ayers, a Chicago professor of education, who in the 1960s was part of a radical antiwar group that set off pipe bombs in lavatories in the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon.

Of Palin’s charge, CNN concluded:

CNN Fact Check, Oct. 5: False. There is no indication that Ayers and Obama are now "palling around," or that they have had an ongoing relationship in the past three years. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Ayers is now involved in terrorist activity or that other Obama associates are.

That’s consistent with what we found back on April 17, after Sen. Hillary Clinton brought up Ayers and his past during a Democratic debate.

It’s not for us to judge which candidate has strayed further from the facts. What we can say is that both of them are right to say the other has been untruthful.

–by Brooks Jackson


Tapper, Jake "From the Fact Check Desk: Stem Cell Selling" ABC News Political Punch blog 23 Sep 2008.

Daniel, Douglass K. "Analysis: Palin’s words may backfire on McCain" The Associated Press 6 Oct 2008.

CNN "Fact Check: Is Obama ‘palling around with terrorists’?" 5 Oct 2008.

DeFrank, Thomas J. "Insults fly as Barack Obama & John McCain prepare for second debate," New York Daily News 5 Oct 2008.

Mannie, Jo "Report on Obama ’truth squad’ stirs up controversy" St. Louis Post-Dispatch 30 Sep 2008.