Nearly 30 years ago, at the suggestion of my boss, I started examining claims made in political advertising.
I wanted to call it Ad Watch. He wanted to call it Truth Squad. A compromise: Truthwatch.
The idea of deciding if political statements were true proved popular with voters. The reaction of candidates and campaigns was different, however, and interesting.
Initially, they were confused. “You’re doing what with the ad?” a campaign would ask. The idea of defending or explaining a political claim was a foreign concept.
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After a few years, though, lots of reporters began checking ads. In response, campaigns began producing long fact sheets about their commercials.
Records were provided. Statements were used in context. On occasion, commercials with misleading claims were revised.
Candidates worked hard to make sure their ads were at least defensible. It was the golden age of Truthwatch and similar fact-checking efforts.
By the end of the 1990s, though, campaigns had tired of explaining themselves. They began to cram their ads with dozens of obscure votes and statements, far more than any voter or journalist could review. They put the really bad stuff in postcard mailers that hit voters’ homes a few days before an election.
Candidates cared far less about Truthwatch or other checks on their claims. Your story airs once, I was told. The commercial runs dozens of times. Do your worst.
Today, the approach is even more troubling. Candidates — and third party “public interest” groups — have moved beyond mere misdirection. They’ve decided false or misleading statements no longer disqualify a candidate.
Candidates were once embarrassed to air a misleading claim, or worried it would impact the election. That provoked some pretty heated arguments, as you might imagine.
Today, a candidate cheerfully admits a claim is misleading but keeps saying it anyway. He or she believes voters will not penalize him for stating a provable falsehood or offering a misleading statement.
Last week, I asked Republican Josh Hawley’s U.S. Senate campaign to explain his plan for guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions, which he promises in an ad. In the 1990s, I would have received a detailed policy outline with bullet points and boldfaced type. An argument.
This year? A couple of tangled paragraphs. Do your worst.
This is the most obvious and pernicious impact of President Donald Trump’s approach to politics. The president misleads with such frequency, and with such panache, that candidates up and down the ballot now feel free to abandon efforts to justify their claims.
In three weeks, we’ll see how sticky this concept is. Lots of other voters seem deeply offended by Trump’s normalization of deceit and may penalize candidates who embrace it. That’s one reason U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder is in trouble in Kansas, and Hawley is in a dead heat with Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
Other voters may be more comfortable with a post-truth election, where tribal allegiances are more important than the veracity of political statements. If so, the president will be in pretty good shape.