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PolitiFact: Obama campaign cherry-picks sources

Maybe you've noticed them in some of Sen. Barack Obama's recent television ads, the small print footnotes at the bottom of the screen as the narrator attacks Sen. John McCain.

They cite newspaper articles, editorials, think tank reports and congressional votes. The print is so small and flashes so quickly, you'd have to freeze the frame to really read them.

But the message behind these barely noticeably source citations is important. They are intended to add credibility and weight to the accusations being made.

In Obama's case, the source citations are intended to back up the accusations, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in political communication from the University of Pennsylvania. But they also help Obama "refute the charge that he's an empty suit full of empty rhetoric."

"It's a tacit refutation that he's speaking in platitudes," Jamieson said. "It's a very clever rhetorical strategy."

But beware, she said, citations don't always equal legitimate evidence.

Sometimes cited articles address a topic but don't fully back up the accusation being made. Or the source cited may have an ideological or political bent.

In short, the citations themselves require scrutiny. And political operatives are betting voters won't give them any.

"If one voter out of 10,000 does that, I'd be surprised," said Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at American University.

So how much stock should you place in the source citations? We took a look at several Obama TV ads and found that while some of the sources provided accurate documentation to back up the claims against McCain, others were far from airtight.

• • •

In a recent Obama TV ad called "Original," the announcer says of McCain: "He's for billions in new oil company giveaways while gas prices soar."

At the bottom, there's a footnoted source: "Center for American Progress Action Fund, 3/27/08."

This refers to a report that analyzed how McCain's proposal to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent would reduce taxes for the top four oil companies by nearly $4-billion. PolitiFact looked at this claim when the ad ran, and concluded that it cherry-picked the facts to offer a misleading impression. All companies would get the tax cuts, so the claim wrongly implies that McCain is proposing a special tax cut for oil companies. He is not.

It's also important to note who is behind the report. The Center for American Progress Action Fund is a think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta.

"It's almost like citing yourself," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter.

Rothenberg believes the citations — which have become more and more commonplace — arose because voters had become cynical about accusations in political ads.

"Now it's a different story," Rothenberg said. "Now it's 'how reliable and credible is the reference?' There are ways to manipulate that."

For example, if you cite the New York Times, do you need to note if it was a news story, an editorial, an opinion column from one writer, or even a guest opinion piece?

In Obama's ad "Original," the announcer says: "John McCain supports Bush's tax cuts for millionaires." One of the sources cited in small print is "Ari Melber, Politico 7/22/08." David Mark, a senior editor at Politico, said that while Melber's story was "certainly a reported article," it was an opinion piece.

Jamieson and others believe viewers might give different weight to an article if they knew it was written as opinion.

• • •

An Obama ad called "Low Road" begins with an image of McCain and the announcer stating, "He's practicing the politics of the past."

The ad then takes a page from movie trailers that steal snippets from movie reviews as part of their advertising campaign.

"John McCain," the announcer states. "His attacks on Obama … 'Not True' (MSNBC 7/28/08) … 'False' (FactCheck.org 7/28/08) … 'Baloney' (USA Today Editorial 7/29/08) … 'the low road' (New York Times Editorial) 7/30/08 … 'baseless' (Time 7/30/08).

Three of the quotations — from MSNBC, FactCheck.org and Time — refer to McCain's criticism of Obama for his last-minute decision to cancel a visit with wounded troops in Germany during a recent political tour of Europe.

"He made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops," an announcer in a McCain ad states. "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."

The "baloney" quote in a USA Today editorial relates to a McCain campaign ad that suggests Obama is to blame for the high price of gas. The "low road" quote came from the headline on a New York Times editorial that admonished McCain for a series of campaign ads it said weren't based in fact.

All of the above citations do accurately reflect what those sources said. But the ad takes media evaluations of specific McCain claims and presents them as a more blanket indictment of McCain's ad campaign. As presented, the ad essentially states, for example, that "His (McCain's) attacks on Obama (are) false," according to FactCheck.org.

That's not true. Many of McCain's attacks on Obama are accurate.

Jamieson, who works at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, which produces FactCheck.org, said she thought the quote was a distortion.

"I saw that and said, 'FactCheck should fact-check that,'" Jamieson said.

• • •

To be fair, there are some citations in the Obama ads that do accurately reflect the sources cited, and do back up some of the accusations in the ads.

For example, one ad correctly cites a congressional vote in November 2005 in which McCain voted, in the majority, against a bill to impose a temporary windfall profit tax on crude oil.

In the end, Lichtman concludes that attack ads that cite sources should not be accepted as giving accusations any greater authority or factual accuracy.

"I think it's a good tactic," Lichtman said. "But that's what it is, a tactic. For us skeptics, it doesn't mean much. Anyone who gets their facts from political ads gets what they deserve."

Statement

McCain's attacks on Obama are "not true,'' "false,'' "baloney,'' according to media outlets, an Obama campaign ad says.

The ruling

The individual citations are correct, but the ad presents them altogether as a broad critique of McCain's ad campaign.

PolitiFact: Obama campaign cherry-picks sources 08/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 1:54pm]
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