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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Year-end Whoppers

The bunk just keeps on coming.


We've often said that the spin never stops in Washington. And the weeks since Nov. 4 offer further evidence of that.

Consider some of the bogus claims we've debunked just since Election Day:

  • It's not true that unionized auto workers at Detroit's Big Three make more than $70 an hour, as claimed by some opponents of federal aid.
  • And no, 3 million workers won't be tossed out of work if aid is not forthcoming, as claimed by those favoring a taxpayer bailout.
  • President-elect Obama never promised to seek a ban on all semi-automatic weapons, as claimed by some fearful gun owners.
  • And no, Obama did not propose a Gestapo-like civilian security force as claimed by a Republican member of Congress from Georgia and any number of overwrought bloggers.
  • Democrats in Congress are not discussing any plan to confiscate the assets in 401(k) retirement accounts, another falsehood spread about by chain e-mails and Internet postings.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not demand a 757-size personal jet, a false claim resurrected when Democrats criticized Big Three executives for flying to D.C. on their own private jets to beg for aid.
  • And Pelosi's husband doesn't own a $17 million stake in a food company that she may (or may not) have tried to help with an exemption from a new minimum wage law.

For details, plus bonus features including video of misleading TV spots by the United Auto Workers and by auto dealers, please read on to the Analysis section.

Watch our "Ask FactCheck" space for new items in the next few days. We'll post the truth about a claim that the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to levy a tax on farmers' cows and hogs. And we'll give you the real story behind a widely circulating (and false) claim that the murder rate in counties that voted for Obama is six times higher than in counties that supported McCain.

And if history is any guide, we'll have much more to debunk in the New Year, too.


The troubles of the auto industry have spawned a number of exaggerations and falsehoods, including a couple of TV spots we're including here, claiming that millions of jobs will be lost if taxpayers don't cough up billions in aid to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

3 Million Jobs?

There's no question that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost should General Motors or Chrysler go under, delivering a severe blow to an economy already facing one of the worst recessions in modern history. But would it be 3 million as claimed in a TV spot by "America's Auto Dealers"? Or "millions" as claimed in another by the United Auto Workers?

Not likely, as we explained in detail in an Ask FactCheck item posted Dec. 24. That 3 million figure comes independently from two groups, one with ties to the automakers and another with a tie to the union. Both are based on the unlikely assumptions that all three automakers will be forced to shut down (Ford has said it can make it through without aid for now); that all their suppliers will go under; and that even Toyota, Honda and other foreign automakers will shut down all their U.S. manufacturing operations. Independent economists say all that isn't likely to happen. David Wyss, chief economist of Standard & Poor's, estimates that at worst half a million jobs would be lost if GM and Chrysler both go out of business.

America's Auto Dealers Ad

[TET ]

Announcer: Three million jobs will be lost. Thousands of small businesses would disappear. Schools, police, and other public services vanish. Communities and our entire economy would suffer. If the auto industry goes under, so does a big piece of America. Call Senators McConnell and Bunning. Ask them to support America's auto industry.[/TET]


United Auto Workers Ad: "Not Bankers"

[TET ]

Announcers: We're not bankers. We don't work on Wall Street. Or for big insurance companies. We build quality cars and trucks, but we've been hit by the same financial crisis. If we go out of business, so will thousands of other businesses. If we lose our jobs, so will millions of others.
Our communities would suffer, the economy would get worse. So Congress, if Wall Street can get help, so should Main Street. We work hard making fuel efficient cars for our future, don't let us down. We won't let America down.


$73 an Hour?

On the other hand, it's not true that the unionized workers at the Big Three take home $75 an hour, as claimed by some bailout foes. That figure represents total labor costs, including wages paid to current workers and the cost of their benefits, plus a substantial amount paid to the Big Three's many retired workers for their pensions and health benefits.

The labor cost figure is higher than the estimated average labor costs for the U.S. plants of Toyota and other foreign producers, to be sure. But that's due largely to the fact that the foreign-owned plants aren't saddled with big payments to retired workers.

For more, see the Ask FactCheck item we posted Dec. 11.

Different versions of the dealer's ad ran in Kentucky and Minnesota and the UAW ad ran in Washington, D.C., according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group of TNS Media Intelligence, which featured them as its "Ad of the Week" for Dec. 15.

Obama Get Your Gun?

The election of Barack Obama and the expansion of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have spawned some misinformation spread by viral e-mails and bloggers. One is a fake quote in which Obama supposedly promised during his presidential campaign to seek "bans on all semi-automatic guns," a category that would include many common handguns, hunting rifles and shotguns. As we detailed in an Ask FactCheck item posted on Dec. 8, this claim is baseless and the quote is almost certainly fabricated.

It is also not true that Obama said he'd seek to create a Gestapo-like "civilian national security force," as claimed by Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia shortly after the election. Broun said that's "exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did." But it turns out, he was echoing misinformation that had been circulating for months on the Internet and through anonymous chain e-mails. It was a badly distorted version of Obama's call for doubling the Peace Corps, creating volunteer networks and increasing the size of the Foreign Service. Details are in an Ask FactCheck item we posted Nov. 11.

Democrats Get Your Retirement?

As if the stock market's nose dive wasn't enough to worry about, some rumormongers were spreading a baseless claim that congressional Democrats were talking about confiscating IRA and 401(k) investment accounts. This falsehood was started by a Nov. 4 report posted by the Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation of Raleigh, N.C. But as we reported in an Ask FactCheck item posted Nov. 19, the report was simply wrong. It was a twisted account of what one House witness actually had proposed – to allow some people to trade their old accounts for a new type that would be less risky, on a voluntary basis.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continued to be a magnet for misinformed attacks. More than a year ago, we debunked a claim that she was advocating a "windfall" tax to take 100 percent of the profits of any stock sale. That claim, a fraud complete with a fabricated quote, is still listed in our "Hot Topics" section as among the claims that we're most frequently asked about. But since the election, we've had many questions about other anti-Pelosi claims as well:

  • She doesn't have routine use of a private 757-size jet. This misinformed claim was revived after Democrats ridiculed the chief executives of GM, Ford and Chrysler for flying to Washington on their own private jets when they first came begging for a taxpayer bailout. The truth is that Pelosi normally flies in the same type of 12-seat Air Force jet, a military version of the Gulfstream III, that was used by her Republican predecessor Dennis Hastert. For more, see the Ask FactCheck item posted Dec. 21.
  • Her wealthy husband does not, as widely claimed, have a $17 million stake in Del Monte foods. That bit of misinformation originated in a short-lived Wikipedia item that was quickly removed for lack of substantiation. And American Samoa never got the exemption from federal minimum-wage laws that Pelosi supposedly sought to aid Del Monte's StarKist tuna plant there. You can find all the details in our Nov. 26 Ask FactCheck item.
Disinformation Works

We wish we could say that all this disinformation is harmless, but there's evidence that a lot of people end up believing such nonsense. In a FactCheck.org "Special Report" that we posted on Dec. 12, titled "Our Disinformed Electorate," we released some findings from a post-election poll taken by the National Annenberg Election Survey. It showed that millions of voters were bamboozled by false claims made by both sides in the 2008 presidential campaign. More than half of those polled thought Obama's tax plan would raise taxes on most small businesses (a false claim made by Sen. John McCain) and more than two in five (42.3 percent) found truth in Obama's false claim that McCain planned to cut Medicare benefits.

Nevertheless, we'll keep blowing the whistle whenever we find political spin. Watch our Ask FactCheck space on the home page for items we'll soon be posting on claims that the EPA is proposing a pollution tax on cows and pigs (false) and a widely circulated e-mail quoting a law school professor giving "unreported stats" from the 2008 election. (The professor denies authorship, and the "statistics" are all wrong.)

And keep checking back in 2009. Because the spin never stops.

–by Brooks Jackson