Most newsrooms’ early efforts to referee political communication focused on the content of political advertising. During election seasons, just trying to keep up with those claims and counter-claims can still be Sisyphean work for fact-checkers. And, perhaps fitting for this meta-media era, an increasing amount of that effort involves fact-checking claims about earlier fact checks, since all those eye-catching Pinocchios and Truth-O-Meter ratings are perfect material for a 30-second political response or attack.
Neil Newhouse, the Republican pollster, said campaigns care far less about fact-checkers than they do about how the fact-checkers’ stories can be “redistributed with voters,” mostly in the form of advertising. “A fact-checker could absolutely destroy an ad,” but it’s irrelevant “if nobody knows about it,” he said. “If it didn’t happen on TV and it didn’t happen on TV a few nights in a row, it didn’t happen.”
Much like the references found in the Congressional Record, most political organizations rarely, if ever, use advertising to challenge all this media scrutiny. Instead they use fact checks to reinforce their point or challenge an opponent’s credibility.
Fact checks are “very useful to campaigns when they’re on your side,” said Democratic political strategist Anita Dunn. “They’re most useful as a counter-offensive tool.” And by “counter-offensive,” Dunn and other political operatives often mean ads that suggest their opponents are lying.
“We use that [fact-checking] in our advertising to say you can’t trust them,” Newhouse said. “You look for third-party credibility that says the other guy is not playing fair…. It becomes part of the ad war.”
That was clearly the case in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, where in 2014 state Sen. Evan Jenkins ended Democrat Nick Rahall’s 38-year career in the House of Representatives. Both sides in the nasty campaign gave fact-checkers plenty of material to work with, as both local and national media watching the race reported at the time.[ref Curtis Johnson, “Attack ads in race criticized,” The Herald-Dispatch (Huntington, W.Va.), Sep. 28, 2014; Trip Gabriel: “Race Tests Democrats’ Viability in West Virginia,” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2014] But Jenkins, a recent party-switcher running as a Republican for the first time, used several TV ads to aggressively trumpet fact checks that were critical of his opponent, with references to stories from FactCheck.org, Time and the Washington Post, often with images of the stories and logos from the fact-checkers’ sites and mastheads.
“Nick Rahall’s attacks on Evan Jenkins: Non-partisan fact-checkers say they’re bogus, out-and-out lies, false,” a narrator said in one Jenkins campaign ad. “One ad so wrong TV stations rejected it. Nick Rahall: A lying politician, just like Obama.” In another ad, a narrator also referred to the Washington Post as Rahall’s “hometown paper” — a bonus slam aimed at the congressman’s long career in the Capitol.[ref Videos from Evan Jenkins’ campaign YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo6blDldHSE; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwwuK1-YRds; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_Lm0xTej0I]
Fact-checkers are keenly aware of how their reporting might be used by the campaigns they’re covering — especially in advertising. “It’s like it has the PolitiFact stamp of approval,” said Greg Borowski, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact Wisconsin team.
But using this reporting to make or bolster a point in a commercial does not mean the ad-makers are beyond distorting journalists’ findings. One example from Borowski’s region came early in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2014 re-election campaign. That February, the Republican Governors Association targeted Walker’s Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, in part by recycling a claim that PolitiFact Wisconsin had already found “mostly false.” Surprisingly, the RGA backed up its claim in that instance by citing that very same fact check.
The commercial concentrated on Burke’s record while she was the state’s Commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle — a period the ad’s narrator said “left Wisconsin with 130,000 fewer jobs.” A caption underscored the 130,000 job losses, attributing the data point to a five-month-old PolitiFact story.[ref https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrL7jdCEaLc]
But that was not exactly what that story said. PolitiFact Wisconsin had given Walker a “mostly false” rating for citing a similar number of job losses during a 2013 TV interview. The ruling was a tricky one: PolitiFact found that Walker’s figure was “numerically true, but with scant evidence at best when it comes to blame,” since experts said broader, economic forces were at play, not just Doyle administration policies.[ref James B. Nelson, “Gov. Scott Walker says the policies of Democrat Jim Doyle cost the state 133,000 jobs,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, Sept. 18, 2013]
Despite the PolitiFact rating, “numerically true” was apparently true enough for Walker’s RGA backers to use both the job-loss count and the fact-check reference in their advertisement. When it came time to fact-check the new RGA commercial, PolitiFact repeated its earlier call on the governor’s nearly identical claim: It was still “mostly false.”[ref Dave Umhoefer, “Republican group ties Wisconsin job loss to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke,” PolitiFact Wisconsin, March 5, 2014]
The Republican Governors Association was hardly alone in its creative use of adverse fact-checking. One relentless series of TV ads that still makes Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler shake his head was produced for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes during her 2014 campaign to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And not just because Grimes ended up repeating a claim that Kessler and other fact-checkers had already found flimsy. “I gave her four Pinocchios and then she went and cut an ad repeating that to the camera,” Kessler said. “Ordinarily you rely on an unseen narrator to make these absurd charges. She did it in front of the camera.”
For much of that year, the Grimes-McConnell race was expected to be a close one, with volleys of negative advertising for fact-checkers to monitor. By mid-October, Kessler’s blog alone had reviewed ads and other statements from Kentucky more than a half-dozen dozen times, resulting in a slew of three-Pinocchio calls and one four-Pinocchio ruling.
The four-Pinocchio rating went to Grimes as she and McConnell were trying to outflank one another with their support for the state’s coal industry. In this case, the Democrat was responding to a McConnell attack ad that said Grimes “takes big money from people who want to destroy Coal.” Grimes fired back, saying McConnell and his independently wealthy wife “personally took $600,000 from anti-coal groups….The only candidate pocketing big money from people who want to destroy coal is Mitch McConnell.”[ref https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drTVvto7od4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orSOULCNn9w]
That wasn’t how the fact-checkers saw it though. In addition to the four Pinocchios that Kessler gave Grimes’ ad, FactCheck.org said her $600,000 claim was “tenuous” and PolitiFact ruled that the response was “false.”
When McConnell used those stories to challenge Grimes’ credibility, as he did in a televised debate the following week, the Democrat returned fire again. [ref Glenn Kessler, “4 Pinocchios for a misguided ‘big money’ coal attack by Alison Grimes,” Washington Post, Oct. 7; Steve Contorno, “Alison Lundergan Grimes says Mitch McConnell, not she, is taking money from anti-coal groups,” PolitiFact, Oct. 8, 2014; Robert Farley, “Kentucky Coal Connections,” Factcheck.org, Oct. 7, 2014; Sam Youngman, “Washington Post fact-checker says ‘Grimes should be ashamed of herself,'” Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 23, 2014; “Kentucky U.S. Senate Candidates Grimes and McConnell | Kentucky Tonight | KET,” YouTube, Oct. 14, 2014] This time her commercial made use of fact-checking that had focused on ads created by McConnell’s campaign and supporters. The commercial began with a rollout of seven words and phrases in all-caps attributed to various news sources:
WASHINGTON POST, 7/11/14
WASHINGTON POST 7/11/14
ASSOCIATED PRESS 7/9/14
The words were read aloud by one voice as a narrator intoned overtop, “That’s what independent fact-checkers are saying about Mitch McConnell’s ads. He’ll say anything.”[ref Video of Grimes’ ad]
But that was not exactly what all of those fact-checkers had said. The FactCheck.org, AP and Post reports were all double-barreled stories looking at dubious claims about Medicare in ads from both campaigns. In the Post’s story, for instance, McConnell’s Medicare ad earned two Pinocchios, but Grimes fared worse. She got four. And the “shaky claims” phrase in the AP story cited by Grimes’ advertisement was not a reference to McConnell. Instead it was aimed at President Obama, of all people, along with other candidates in the previous election cycle.[ref Brooks Jackson, Robert Farley and Lori Robertson, “Medicare Ghost Stories,” FactCheck.org, July 9, 2014; Glenn Kessler, “A Kentucky shootout over stale Medicare claims,” Washington Post, July 11, 2014; Adam Beam and Calvin Woodward, “FACT CHECK: It’s ‘Mediscare’ time in Kentucky,” AP (via Yahoo News), July 9, 2014; Note: One of the five fact checks cited by the Grimes campaign was in fact as the “say anything” ad described it: a PolitiFact story that found a McConnell ad “mostly false.” (We could not locate the the fifth fact-check cited in the ad — an item that apparently was part of a regular “Reality Check” broadcast by the NBC affiliate in Louisville.) See Steve Contorno, “Mitch McConnell ad says he supported ‘stronger’ Violence Against Women Act than Barack Obama, PolitiFact.com, Aug. 13, 2014 and this related item: Steve Contorno, “Alison Lundergan Grimes ad claims McConnell twice voted against Violence Against Women Act,” PolitiFact.com, Aug. 13, 2014; Local NBC station WAVE3 in Louisville routinely posted its “Reality Check” stories on its website, but we did not find any items on or around July 17 that rated McConnell false.]
Amid this confusion and blatant misrepresentation, the Grimes campaign also generated another TV spot. Even as she was relying on fact-checking references in one ad, she was repeating a claim previously rejected by three of the same national fact-checkers — her earlier contention that McConnell and his wife personally profited from anti-coal money. This was the ad in which Grimes spoke directly to the camera, standing in front of a coal plant: “I approve this message because the difference between Mitch and me is I will fight for these jobs and no New York anti-coal billionaire will ever buy me off.”
At the Post, Fact Checker Glenn Kessler referred back to his previous reporting and issued Grimes another four Pinocchios for “doubl[ing] down on this falsehood,” as well as other misstatements he found in the script.[ref Glenn Kessler, “Alison Grimes doubles down on a 4-Pinocchio claim,” Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2014; Kessler’s reporting was based on YouTube version of ad uploaded on Oct. 21, 2014] Kessler later included this particular ad in the Post’s late-October list of “the most fact-challenged ads of the 2014 midterm elections” and a year-end collection of “the biggest Pinocchios of 2014.”[ref Glenn Kessler, “The most fact-challenged ads of the 2014 midterm elections,” Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2014; Glenn Kessler, “The biggest Pinocchios of 2014,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2014]