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73 Percent Of Campaign Ads Examined Earn Fouls


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By Susan J. Demas


If you only caught the election via TV commercials this year, you’d probably think it was about a Nerd, China and a pricey aquarium – and little else.


While the Michigan Truth Squad didn’t look at every piece of political communication issued by candidates and parties this year, we did take a look at a substantial number. And we found serious problems – from out and out falsehoods to incomplete innuendo – in nearly three of every four internet ads, campaign web sites, television and radio spots and mailers we looked at. What's surprising is that some citizens say the real number is even higher!


The Truth Squad, a project of the nonpartisan think-and-do tank, the Center for Michigan, reviewed its first ad on April 27. We’ve analyzed a total of 116 ads, mail pieces and websites since then.


So why does this matter?


Advertising is always an important part of campaigns, but it’s perhaps played an even bigger role for voters this year, as there have been few candidate debates. During the general election, interested citizens could see only one debate apiece in the statewide races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general. As the media, particularly newspapers, continue to downsize, there are fewer reporters than in previous elections to provide objective information to voters.


So the Truth Squad was started this year to sift through the motley world of campaign advertising. Referees go line by line in ads and websites and tell you what claims are true and which ones are false – and why.


At the end, each one gets a call. A flagrant foul is the worst of the worst, typically involving a personal attack. A foul inaccurately states a fact on policy and a technical foul implies something that isn’t true and deserves more explanation. Warnings are given to statements that could be misconstrued, but are generally true. And no fouls are awarded to ads that are accurate, even if they’re not particularly nice.


This election season also has seen a sharp increase in ads by independent groups, not just candidates and political parties. Not much is known about most of these shadowy organizations, like who’s giving them money, who works for them and sometimes even where they’re located. The Truth Squad has made it one of its missions to shed as much light on these operations as possible.


Foul calls

Truth is a precious commodity in campaign advertising, if the Truth Squad’s findings are any indication.


In total, 85 of the 116 pieces analyzed netted foul calls of the technical, regular or flagrant variety. And 31 did not, earning either a warning or no foul call. By far, “foul” was the most popular call with 47 percent. Flagrant fouls are 13 percent, technical fouls are 14 percent, warnings are 9 percent and no fouls are 17 percent.


However, it should be noted that most of those in the “no foul” category are campaign websites. The Truth Squad examined 19 campaign websites, mostly from state Senate candidates. We found that only 10 of 17 deserved fouls – 59 percent – significantly below the average.


One reason for this is that several candidates took advantage of nearly unlimited space online to lay out their records and policy positions, something that’s a challenge in a 30-second TV spot. Another reason is that some candidates devoted their sites to platitudes like, “I believe in creating jobs,” which can’t be proven or dis-proven. But they don’t provide voters with much information, even if none of it is false.


The Truth Squad looked at 44 advertising pieces before the Aug. 3 primary and 72 afterward. During the primary season, 70 percent received fouls. “Foul” was the most popular call with 43 percent. Sixteen percent were flagrant fouls, 11 percent were technical fouls, 20 percent were warnings and 9 percent were no fouls.


During the general election season, the Truth Squad called foul on 75 percent of campaign advertising. The most popular call again was “foul” with 49 percent. Flagrant fouls were 11 percent, technical fouls were 15 percent, warnings were 3 percent and no fouls were 22 percent.


Political parties continued to serve as attack dogs for candidates. Of the 40 ads analyzed, only two didn’t rate fouls – both from the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) -- giving parties a 95 percent inaccuracy rate. And 18 percent were flagrant fouls. In this category are ads from the MDP, Michigan Republican Party, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Campaign Committee.


The Truth Squad analyzed 15 ads by 11 independent groups: AFSCME, SEIU, American Future Fund, Republican Governors Association, Foundation for Future Prosperity, Michigan Taxpayers Alert, Genesee County Democrats, Advance Michigan Now, Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, Americans for Job Security and the Michigan Civic Educational Fund.


The track record for these third-party groups is pretty slimy, with 73 percent netting fouls. Most notably, 40 percent received flagrant fouls for particularly baseless attacks.


Race by race


The governor’s race, appropriately enough, took up more of the Truth Squad’s time than any other race. One-third of all the ads examined were from this race. And 70 percent received foul calls, in keeping with the overall numbers.


This category included the seven gubernatorial candidates – Attorney General Mike Cox, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland), Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder and Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) on the GOP side and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township) for the Democrats.


The Truth Squad also analyzed ads by both major political parties and eight independent groups in the race.


On the Republican side, candidates ran 21 ads reviewed this election and 57 percent deserved fouls, with no flagrant fouls. For the Democrats, candidates ran five ads and 60 percent netted fouls. None were flagrant.


The attorney general race including ads about or from Democrat David Leyton, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) and Republican Bill Schuette was a sea of negativity, with the Democratic and Republican parties doing most of the dirty work. All 10 ads rated by the Truth Squad took home foul calls. Republican candidates ran two ads reviewed and both received fouls. Leyton didn't run any ads examined by the Truth Squad.


The Michigan Supreme Court battle followed a similar pattern, with Justice Bob Young, Justice Alton Thomas Davis, Judge Mary Beth Kelly and Judge Denise Langford Morris on the ballot. All three of the ads examined received fouls and they were all done by the parties.


The Truth Squad looked at 11 ads in the Secretary of State race, including those about or by Democratic nominee Jocelyn Benson, Republican Ruth Johnson, Sen. Cameron Brown (R-Fawn River Township) and Sen. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau). The political parties dominated in this contest, as well, and 80 percent netted fouls. The Truth Squad looked at materials from three Republicans, all of which earned fouls. Benson had two pieces, one of which received a foul.


The 7th Congressional District race is a rematch between U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) and former U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton). All five ads examined took home fouls, three of which came from third-party groups.


In the 1st Congressional District, Rep. Gary McDowell (D-Rudyard) is squaring off against Republican Dan Benishek for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee). Eighty percent of ads in this race received fouls. Both ads from McDowell took home fouls.


The Truth Squad looked at one ad in the 9th Congressional District race between U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-West Bloomfield) and Republican Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski. The spot was by Peters and the Squad didn’t give it a foul.


Twelve ads for the state House were examined and 92 percent were awarded fouls. One Republican candidate received a foul. Two Democrats' materials were reviewed and one received a foul. The state parties did the other ads and only one didn't receive a foul.


And the Truth Squad looked at 17 state Senate ads and websites and found 58 percent deserved fouls. Once again, 15 of these were campaign websites, which the Squad found to be more truthful than mailers, TV commercials or Internet ads. The Michigan Republican Party did the other two ads, both of which earned fouls.

Lessons learned


Misleading ads still flooded your TV this election. So what impact has the Truth Squad really had?


That’s a fair question and one that’s come up repeatedly in forums about the project and others featuring Truth Squad referees. Political advertising enjoys a lot of latitude from courts, which have ruled it is protected by the First Amendment. So even when ads are demonstrably false, media have the right to still run them. Campaigns can threaten legal action, as Hoekstra’s campaign did to successfully get an ad by Americans for Job Security pulled down, but that's the exception, not the rule.


And sometimes public pressure works. Take the “Pure Lansing” Internet attack ad the state GOP launched against Bernero portraying the city as a hellhole. The Truth Squad slapped it with a flagrant foul and angry Lansing residents – including some prominent Republicans – protested. As a result, the MRP removed the ad and you can’t even find it on YouTube.


But most of the time, the ads stay up. Until there are fundamental changes in election and campaign finance law, this is the way it’s going to be.


The Truth Squad staff knew this reality going in. We didn't aim to censor ads. We don't have that kind of power; nor do we desire it. Our goal was to be a source of objective information about ads. Voters may be stuck with these spots on endless loop, but at least there’s a resource to tell you what’s true and what’s false.


Several campaigns and groups have criticized the Truth Squad’s calls. Republicans complain the Truth Squad is part of the liberal media and Democrats complain that it’s a conservative tool. Neither is the case, but we expected that reaction, especially with the number of foul calls we’ve issued.


We have been upfront that the Truth Squad is a project of the Center for Michigan, which does have an agenda -- although it is not an ideological one. The Center seeks an end to hyper-partisanship and has a 10-point action plan for the state, including holding politicians accountable, overhauling the state’s tax system for the 21st century and creating a more business-friendly entrepreneurial environment.


It also has been noted that Rick Snyder was in 2006 one of the Center's 100 founding champions, which could be viewed as a conflict of interest. Snyder has never sat on the organization's board. He does he have any control over the Center's work or the Truth Squad. But we acknowledge that this could cause concern.


Interestingly, we've been endorsed – sort of -- by candidates from both parties, including Supreme Court candidate Bob Young and Rick Snyder. Young placed our "foul" call on the Michigan Democratic Party stop against him prominently on his web page. In the Oct. 10 gubernatorial debate, Snyder referenced the Squad’s call on outsourcing. Not surprisingly, he neglected to mention the fouls called on ads by his campaign or independent groups supporting him.


The Truth Squad has received far more attention than we expected, which indicates that there is a hunger for fact-checking. Its findings have been featured in or on WILX-TV in Lansing, WLNS-TV in Lansing, WNEM-TV in Saginaw, WDET-TV in Detroit, Interlochen Public Radio, Michigan Radio, mlive.com, the Detroit News, the Traverse City Record Eagle, the City Pulse radio show in East Lansing, WILS-AM in Lansing, WKZO-AM in Kalamazoo, WJBK-TV in Detroit and WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids.


Like any project, we have learned through trial and error. Certainly there are dozens of TV ads, mail pieces and campaign websites we didn’t have the time and staff to analyze. We have done our best to examine a representative sample of the advertising in various campaigns and have devoted the most time to the governor’s race. There is no doubt that there are egregious ads that we have missed – and some accurate ones, too.


We also have received many tips from voters through our website. We try our best to respond to these suggestions because they come from people on the front lines. But that means that we haven’t always looked at both candidates in campaigns. For instance, in House races, 10 of the 12 pieces were supporting Republican candidates in response to voter tips. Next election cycle, the Truth Squad is planning to make a better effort to examine ads from both Republican and Democratic candidates in each race.


We also have analyzed spots from some candidates more than others, mostly in response to reader tips. For instance, we looked at seven ads by Cox in the primary and only three from Hoekstra. This is something we plan to keep an eye on next time to ensure fairness.


The Truth Squad welcomes feedback as we gear up for the 2012 election. Remember, that kicks off on Nov. 3 (if it hasn’t started already).

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