May 25, 2004
Campaign Ads Are U
nder Fire for Inaccuracy
By JIM RUTENBERG
ASHINGTON, May 24
A record year for political advertising has brought with it a
hail of televised exaggerations, omissions and mischaracterizations that pollsters say
seem to be leaving voters with mistaken i
Senator John Kerry
The degree to which the advertisements push the facts, or go beyond them, varies by
commercial. While Mr. Bush's campaign has been singled out as going particularly far
with some of its claims, Mr. Kerry's camp
aign has also been criticized as frequently
going beyond the bounds of truth.
In three of its advertisements, Mr. Bush's campaign has said Mr. Kerry would raise taxes
by at least $900 billion in his first 100 days in office. Mr. Kerry has no such plan.
an advertisement for Mr. Kerry, an announcer said, "George Bush says sending jobs
overseas makes sense for America." Mr. Bush never said that. A report to Congress by
his top economic adviser said cheaper production of goods overseas had long
s but did not make the plain case that domestic job losses were a good thing.
Outside groups are getting into the act as well.
The League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Mr. Kerry, is running an
advertisement in Florida warning that "President
Bush opened up Florida's coast to
offshore drilling." But the drilling area that was opened under Mr. Bush is 100 miles off
the coast, much farther than it would have been under a Clinton administration proposal.
Of course, it is a time
tested practice to
make one's opponent look as bad as possible in a
political campaign, whether the race is for town council or the presidency of the United
States. And the campaigns and outside groups say they are under no obligation to present
defenses for their opponents
in their own advertisements, all of which are at least
tenuously based in fact.
But this campaign season, with total advertising spending at roughly $150 million since
early last summer, the number of distortions and omissions is worrying some good
ent groups, which say they fear that the big money behind the claims is leaving
"Even people who don't think there is much information in these ads and say they don't
learn anything from them tell us they believe factoids they could
only have gotten from
these ads, and they're wrong," said Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, an
Annenberg Public Policy Center Web site that vets political advertisements for accuracy.
"It's beyond subliminal
it's something else I haven't come up
with a name for."
This month the Annenberg Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, released a poll of
voters in battleground states that found many believed misleading statements made in the
In a survey conducted from April 15 to May 2
, 61 percent of the 1,026 voters questioned
in the 18 swing states where most of the advertising has run said they believed Mr. Bush
favored sending jobs overseas. And 72 percent said they believed that three million jobs
had been lost during Mr. Bush's pr
esidency. Mr. Kerry made that claim in a spot in late
February, when the most commonly used Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed the
actual net job loss to be closer to 2.3 million, down from 2.7 million in late summer. That
number is now less than 1.6 m
illion. (Mr. Kerry's figures did not include government
In the same survey, 46 percent of those questioned said they believed Mr. Kerry "wants
to raise gasoline taxes by 50 cents a gallon." Three spots for Mr. Bush have said that Mr.
d a 50
gallon tax hike on gasoline, an assertion based from
comments Mr. Kerry that appeared in two newspapers 10 years ago regarding a position
he never acted on and has long since abandoned.
More than half of those surveyed also said they believed
Mr. Kerry had "voted for higher
taxes 350 times." That idea, Annenberg researchers concluded, is based on a commercial
for Mr. Bush in which an announcer said, "Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times."
While Bush campaign aides say the contention is
accurate and have made public a list of
instances to which it refers, they acknowledge that in several of these cases Mr. Kerry
had in fact either voted to maintain tax rates or even to cut them, but not by as much as
Republicans had proposed.
"Each of th
ese votes amounted to higher taxes than an alternative," said Terry Holt, a
spokesman for the Bush campaign. "We expect that voters will reach the obvious
conclusion that John Kerry will increase your taxes or will oppose efforts to cut taxes."
Asked why t
he spot did not simply say that Mr. Kerry has consistently voted for higher
taxes than Republicans have proposed, which even the Kerry campaign would not
dispute, Mr. Holt said, "We said `supported higher taxes,' as provably true and totally
eral other commercials this year have been criticized for pushing past the facts when
they could have indisputably conveyed similar points with less sensational
For instance, one of Mr. Kerry's new commercials boasts that he provided "a de
vote" for President Bill Clinton's 1993 economic plan, which, it maintains, "created 20
million new jobs." The bill passed by a single vote in the Senate, giving anybody who
voted for it a claim to have provided a decisive vote. But at the time, it
was the last
minute support of Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, that was considered
decisive. And even economists who credit the plan with playing a significant role in the
1990's boom say Mr. Kerry's spot goes too far.
"To say that any one econo
mic package was responsible for all of the stuff going on in
the 90's is kind of ridiculous," said L. Douglas Lee, president of Economics From
Washington, an economic policy analysis firm. Still, Mr. Lee said, the 1993 package was
an important factor in th
Asked why the spot did not simply say Mr. Kerry voted for a package credited with
helping to set the conditions for the boom, Michael Meehan, a Kerry spokesman, said:
"That's why we have elections. People get to decide. We said it created 20 milli
on jobs. If
people don't believe that, they should vote for someone else."
Aides on both sides said privately that it was hard to fit all the nuance of complex
policies into a vehicle designed to convey thoughts no more complex than "Tastes Great,
"There's only so much you can do in a 30
second ad," said an aide to Mr. Kerry, making
a point that was echoed by a senior strategist for the Bush campaign.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, does not accept
t. "When they could make the 30
second ad accurate and they don't, you've got to
believe that they're intentionally misleading you," she said.
Kenneth M. Goldstein, an associate professor of political science at the University of
Wisconsin, said it was to
be expected that the campaigns would take liberties, and that
with both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush flush with cash, there was plenty of time for them to
answer each other's claims.
"Politics is about putting your best foot forward and putting the other person
in the worst
light," Mr. Goldstein said. "Do we expect someone who's advertising to say, `You know,
I really don't want to put this person's record in the worst light because that's not fair'?"
In the end, Mr. Jackson of Factcheck.org said, all that can be
done is to continue to vet
commercials for accuracy and try to set the record straight as publicly as possible. That,
he said, is an occasionally thankless task:
"I've had consultants tell me, `Your ad watch runs once, my ad runs many times; who's
o win?' "