Campaigns Play Loose With Truth in a Fact-Check Age

There was one problem: the quotation was taken so wildly out of context that it turned Mr. Obama’s actual meaning upside-down. The truncated clip came from a speech Mr. Obama gave in 2008 talking about his opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. The full quotation? “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ ”, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking Web site, rated the advertisement “Pants on Fire,” its most deceptive rating possible, but it achieved what the Romney campaign had hoped: people started talking about the sluggish economy and how Mr. Obama’s campaign promises had fallen short. And it set the tone for the campaign that followed, which has often seemed dismissive of fact-checkers.

“We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Neil Newhouse, the Romney campaign’s pollster, said this week during a breakfast discussion at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., that was sponsored by ABC News and Yahoo News. He said that fact-checkers brought their own sets of thoughts and beliefs to their work, and that the campaign stands behind its ads.

Every four years there are lies in campaigns, and at times a blurry line between acceptable political argument and outright sophistry. But recent events — from the misleading statements in convention speeches to television advertisements repeating widely debunked claims — have raised new questions about whether the political culture still holds any penalty for falsehood.

Brooks Jackson, the director of, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said that at various points this year both sides have blithely gone on repeating statements that were found false.

“They don’t care,” he said, “because it gets votes.” The increasingly disaggregated media ecosystem, the diminished trust in traditional news organizations and the rise of social media had made it easier than ever to inject questionable assertions directly into the media bloodstream — and to rebut them.

But while there is arguably more fact-checking now than ever — and, thanks to the Web, more ways to independently check what candidates and campaigns say — verdicts that a campaign has crossed the line are often drowned out by dissent from its supporters, who take it upon themselves to check the checkers.

Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, said nonpartisan fact-checking groups now compete with ideologically motivated groups from both sides that consider their work to be checking facts as well. (The political campaigns also call some of their own news releases “fact-checks.”)

“The term ‘fact check’ can easily be devalued, as people throw it onto any sort of an opinion that they have,” Mr. Nyhan said. “The other problem is that the partisans who pay attention to politics are being conditioned to disregard the fact-checkers when their own side gets criticized.”

The cycle was on display at the Republican convention when Mr. Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, made a number of questionable or misleading claims in his speech. Even before he stopped speaking, some of his claims were being questioned on Twitter. Soon fact-checkers were highlighting some of the misleading statements. More partisan sites rushed to Mr. Ryan’s defense with posts finding fault with the first round of fact checks.

The truth-twisting has not been limited to Republicans. Democrats gleefully repeated an out-of-context quote that made it sound as if Mr. Romney enjoys firing people. An outside group supporting Mr. Obama ran an advertisement giving the unfair impression that Mr. Romney was responsible for the death of the wife of a steelworker who lost his job and his health insurance when Mr. Romney’s old company, Bain Capital, closed down the plant where he worked.

And the Obama campaign ran a commercial falsely suggesting that Mr. Romney opposes abortion even in cases or rape or incest; he says he supports such exceptions.

But some independent commentators have argued that the Romney campaign appears to be more dishonest at this point in the campaign, citing the many times it has broadcast a commercial making the false claim that Mr. Obama wants to gut the work requirements of welfare.

Mark Halperin, the Time magazine writer, made the point this week on MSNBC, even as he noted that the Democrats had lost some of the high ground with their recent misleading attacks. “But at this point I think the Romney campaign is besting them in making these distortions and untruths a bigger part of their message,” he said.

Confidence in the old arbiters, the mainstream media, has fallen precipitously in recent decades: the percentage of Americans who trust newspapers, television and radio to report the news accurately and fairly fell to 43 percent in 2010, down from 72 percent in 1976, according to the Gallup Poll. Mr. Nyhan’s research has shown the difficulties in trying to set the record straight through news accounts.

In a recent paper, called “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” he and Jason Reifler, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, found that corrective information in standard news articles — compared with separate fact-check pieces — was often ineffective at changing the minds of people predisposed to believe a misperception, and sometimes made the problem worse with what they termed a “backfire effect.”

Bill Adair, the editor of, a project of The Tampa Bay Times, has seen his site come under fire from the left and the right in recent years, but said that this may prove to be the year of the fact-checker.

“I think there has always been a calculation by political campaigns to forge ahead with a falsehood if they think it will score the points they want to score,” said Mr. Adair, who noted that campaigns still care enough about the truth to spend time explaining their positions and statements to his reporters. “What’s different this time is there is more fact-checking than ever.” NYT