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October 1, 2008

Truth in (campaign) advertising

Swear to tell the truth,

the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Didn’t

think so. 

The first round of campaign ads in Kentucky’s 3rd District congressional race between Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and his Republican opponent Anne Northup reveals just how delicate the deceit of campaign messages can be.

The freshman congressman made his first television ad appearance this political season with a traditional incumbent commercial, stepping up his otherwise low-profile campaign. The ad, “Listening,” reminds voters about the congressman’s accomplishments and depicts Yarmuth highlighting three pieces of legislation he helped pass.

“Over the past two years, I’ve been to more than 1,000 community meetings and events,” Yarmuth says, adding that during his tenure he helped pass the biggest increase in student financial aid in more than 60 years, fought to pass the largest expansion of children’s health insurance in more than a decade, and approved the largest increase in veteran’s healthcare in history

The devil, of course, is in the details.

While two of the accomplishments Yarmuth touts in his debut TV ad — reducing college costs and enhancing care for veterans — were in fact signed into law, the third was not. When Yarmuth says he helped expand children’s healthcare, he doesn’t mention that just because he voted for it, and just because the House — and then the Senate — passed it, does not mean it became law. In fact, President Bush vetoed the bill.

Cue the condescending Anne Northup retort.

Just days after the Yarmuth ad first aired last month, the Northup campaign responded by pointing out that the state children’s health insurance legislation never took effect. In the Northup ad, entitled “Lowest,” a male narrator mockingly asks, “John, that didn’t become law, now did it?”

The Northup ad is misleading in its own right, omitting that the bill’s downfall was the result of the president’s pen and not because of the “do–nothing Congress” or any failure on Yarmuth’s part. Twice last year, Bush vetoed attempts to expand health insurance to cover 10 million children nationwide, including 80,000 kids in Kentucky.

LEO Weekly contacted Northup’s spokesman but he was unavailable for comment.

Pointing out that Yarmuth never claimed the children’s healthcare bill became law, the congressman’s people say they welcome a debate with Northup regarding the expansion of children’s health insurance. But by saying he helped “pass” an expansion of children’s health insurance, some argue Yarmuth is taking advantage of our collective naiveté. 

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth

Should voters ever believe what they hear from the campaign trail?

Discerning what is true, misleading or flat-out false is tricky business, which is why the sophistication of the voter — or lack thereof — is so important.

“Every citizen should realize they’re not getting the whole story from either candidate,” says Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, a nonpartisan group that monitors the accuracy of candidates’ advertising, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. 

In a telephone interview with LEO Weekly, Jackson — a veteran Washington reporter who has covered national politics for The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and CNN — says voters are lucky if they get one candidate to be straight with them. Slight exaggerations, as well as complete misrepresentations, are used on such a regular basis that voters need to understand they’re likely being misled, no matter which candidate they support.

“You’re not getting a true policy statement from these candidates,” Jackson says. “You’re always getting propaganda.”

Take, for example, Northup’s first TV ad, “Results.” Highlighting anxiety over gas prices, Northup says, “John Yarmuth says we should explore for American oil. But the bill he actually voted for, it’s a sham,” saying her opponent voted for a bill that permanently blocks drilling for 80 percent of offshore oil.

While it’s true Yarmuth voted for the Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act in September, which significantly restricted drilling within a 50-mile boundary of the Outer Continental Shelf, that bill failed to pass the Senate. Yarmuth later voted for an appropriations bill that allows drilling within a 3-mile coastal boundary. 

In response to such misrepresentations — no matter how minor — an increasing number of organizations are aggressively busting deceptive campaign ads. Besides Annenberg’s website, www.FactCheck.org, others such as PolitiFact.com and Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs’ Fact Check blog, heavily scrutinize the campaign ads of high-profile candidates.

Fewer resources exist to monitor smaller, local races, where nastier campaign ads with the most serious distortions often run a few days before Election Day, according to Jackson.

“The false impression political ads try to create is successful,” Jackson says. “People are really taken in by this and they are hard to bust.”