The 'truthiness' of political advertising

The 'truthiness' of political advertising

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The trickle of political advertising we see at the moment will become a virtual flood in coming months as candidates unleash their prodigious media budgets.

The deluge will certainly help the revenue streams of local media companies, but will it be helpful to voters interested in a fair assessment of a candidate and his or her positions on important issues?

Unfortunately, the truth about political advertising is that it is only occasionally about the truth. Increasingly, we see ads and hear claims based on selective facts, imaginative extrapolations and sometimes, outright falsehoods.

The temptation to not let the facts get in the way of a good tagline has given birth to a journalistic cottage industry in the form of various fact checking and "truth test" columns and websites. And as the season of the tangled web gets under way, they are busy.

Republican Senator of Utah Orrin Hatch. (AP 
Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Republican Senator of Utah Orrin Hatch. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Just this week, a Utah political ad found itself ensnared in one of the truth traps set by, among the most vigilant tracking outfits, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The ad in question is the work of a group supporting the re-election of Senator Orrin Hatch. It accuses challenger Dan Liljenquist of voting as a state senator to, among other things, "allow state employees to double dip, collecting a pension and a pay check." calls the claim a "gross exaggeration" that "fails to tell the whole story." In other words, precisely the kind of advertising we seem to be seeing more often, probably because there is persuasive data available to politicians that such advertising is, well, persuasive.

While a few deal in outright lies, most are more nuanced, residing somewhere between exaggeration and what satirist Stephen Colbert has dubbed "truthiness" - something that has the ring of truth, but only the ring.

An example is the claim heard on the GOP trail that President Barack Obama has raised taxes on "millions of Americans." It's a claim so simple that people are inclined to accept it at face value, and it handily reinforces the notion that Democrats add taxes while Republicans take them away.

Problem is, it's just not true, as the Washington Post's respected fact-check columnist reported.

Another claim on the bald-faced side of things came last week from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the context of a race in Ohio. It issued a press release claiming that the Obama Administration's health care package will result in a $500 billion tax increase for small businesses in Ohio alone. As a local truth-test column pointed out, "That would be a heck of an increase, were it true."

Some ads are cleverly assembled to avoid having the candidate's trousers spontaneously combust, while still managing to deftly defy the facts. An example is the first campaign spot produced this year by the Obama team, which, in painstaking fashion, revealed as, at best, "misleading."

Truth-telling, or the lack thereof, often rises to official issue status in and of itself, given that some candidates, like Sen. Hatch, have been around a long time and said a lot of things, some of which may return to haunt his campaign as the indices of a "flip-flop." And be assured the Obama camp will mine the large body of Romney rhetoric on a lot of issues, particularly health care reform.

All of this proving that Mark Twain had a point when he said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."

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