2014-09-13 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Truth Squads Accelerate Efforts to Fact-check Statewide Campaigns
By George Weeks

As the advertisement wars heat up in the final two months of general election campaigns, truth squads in various forms are accelerating efforts to fact-check television ads of candidates and their well-heeled supporters who sponsor ads.

Throughout the year, the nonpartisan Center for Michigan’s Bridge magazine has posted its Michigan Truth Squad offerings (six in August) that, as described by Center founder and president Phil Power, “have called foul, nofoul, or flagrant foul on misleading and outright distorted political advertising.”

FactCheck.org issues periodic assessments on political races, including recently the Senate contest between Democratic U.S. Representative Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land, former secretary of state.

Newspapers have long made truth judgments in assorted ways, including editorials and columns.

Under a Truth Squad headline last week, the Detroit Free Press said Governor Rick Snyder’s first television ad since earlier this year “has more fact than fiction.” The analysis said he “mostly sticks to the facts. …But one of Gov. Snyder’s claims in the ad is misleading, at best…. more false than true.”

That claim: “We’ve eliminated a billion-and-a-half budget deficit.” The paper’s point is that “The state can’t run a budget deficit” under Michigan’s constitution. “For that reason, there can never be a budget to eliminate, only a projected deficit to resolve.”

Gov. Snyder was able to use a School Aid Fund surplus from the 2011 fiscal year to partly offset his projected general fund deficit for 2012.

The Detroit Free Press Truth Squad had these assessments of Gov. Snyder’s other claims:

— “Since I took office, we put a billion more dollars into education.”

True.

—“Our unemployment rate is the lowest in six years.”

Mostly true.

(The paper said the seasonally adjusted rate of 7.7 % in July was a little up from an April 2014 low of 7.4 %. But by comparing to previous years, it is as low as it has been since May 2008—a little more than six years ago, when the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.6 %.)

—-“Nearly 300,000 new private sector jobs.”

True.

(Apart from the fact checking, I thought Gov. Snyder’s ad was better than what he aired earlier this year. He spoke in a strong voice, and the visuals that illustrated his points were effective.)

The day after Gov. Snyder launched his fall television blitz, the Democratic Governors Association released a new television ad in support of ex-U.S. Representative Mark Schauer, Gov. Snyder’s Democratic challenger.

In a Truth Squad column headlined “Pro-Schauer ad mostly factual, except on education cuts,” the Detroit Free Press said the ad “repeats the false claim that (Gov. Snyder) cut $1 billion from education. Otherwise, the 30-second ad, titled ‘Teacher,’ is factually accurate.”

The paper said, “The DGA attempts to back its claim by citing newspaper articles from 2011, after Gov. Snyder recommended significant K-12 spending, but before the 2011-12 budget was finalized.”

The ad said Gov. Snyder “gave his own administration officials huge pay raises.” The paper declared it “true but somewhat misleading. …Though the ad could leave the impression huge raises were distributed across state government, the state says these officials were targeted because they could make more in the private sector and the state needed to retain them. It’s also worth noting that the officials were civil servants— not Gov. Snyder appointees.”

As the Snyder–Schauer race escalates, Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economics professor, wrote in Bridge, “It’s worthwhile to ask how much difference the election will make to the Michigan economy. The answer is that, while it will probably make some difference, no governor in any state can bring about sudden and dramatic improvements to the economy.”

“Like it or not, the Michigan economy is greatly affected by events beyond our borders, over which we have little or no control.”

Benishek-Cannon

Northern airways abound with attack ads by support groups in the 1st District race between U.S. Representative Dan Benishek (RIron Mountain) and Democratic challenger Jerry Cannon of Fife Lake, a retired major general and former Kalkaska County sheriff.

But so far, the candidates themselves have eschewed opponent attacks in their own ads—some of them downright warm and fuzzy with a focus on family, Michigan ties, and early years, while touting their resumes.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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