Figuring Out the Facts Behind Political Ads, Speeches, Debates -- and Folklore

May 9, 2016

Ohio Media Project is helping voters take a closer look at the claims, spending and atmosphere integral to political advertising.
Credit OHIO MEDIA PROJECT

Political ad spending has been growing exponentially in Ohio and nationwide -- especially among the outside groups airing more than 80 percent of the ads in the GOP primaries. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with the head of one of the groups trying to keep up with the claims made in those ads, as well as those made in speeches, debates and rallies.

Factcheck.org is a nonprofit at the University of Pennsylvania that sees itself as a consumer advocate for voters. This campaign cycle, Director Eugene Kiely and the handful of staff at Factcheck have been trying to keep up with claims made by and about many of the two dozen Democrats and Republicans who at least for some period were running for president. I talked with him about the goal and the process.

Eugene Kiely is director of factcheck.org and a former editor at USA Today.
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU

  “We’re not going to check opinion. If someone says the stimulus is a disaster or Obamacare is a disaster, that’s fine. But if someone makes a specific claim about unemployment rates, Obamacare, then we can start taking a look at that.”

The look begins with the campaign itself, asking the source where they came up with their claim. And Kiely says most respond. Factcheck also goes to primary-source material, such as labor statistics, and archives of speeches, debates and other evidence.

WKSU is part of the Ohio Media Project, a collaboration trying to reframe political coverage in the state this presidential year. As part of the Your Vote Ohio effort, over the next two weeks, we'll look at the power of and money behind political advertising.

“If it’s murky, if we can’t determine it, we’ll just move onto something else. But if we can provide some clarity, some context, some factual information that could lead us to a conclusion, then we’ll do it.”

The factchecker’s article on the claim is then edited and factchecked itself by four people, including the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which runs factcheck.org.

Kiely says the facts are crucial groundwork for public policy.

“We can’t as a country decide issues unless we know what the basic facts are. For example, with the Syrian refugee crisis: Donald Trump for a while repeatedly said that there were 200,000 Syrian refuges that the Obama administration wanted to bring to the United States. It was clearly wrong. ... It was 10,000.”

“There is a serious debate and discussion to have about: ‘What do we do with Syrian refugees? How many can we accept? How (complete) is the process for vetting Syrian refugees?’ ... And all that’s where the discussion should be. But we shouldn’t be having a discussion about how many of them there are.”

“We need some basic information that we all should agree on so then we can have that discussion of public policy.”

Kiely acknowledges that factcheckers, as well as the mainstream media, are increasingly the target of distrust by some voters. He says he responds to the critics by being transparent.

“I’ll lay out our process ... about how we go about factchecking, the fact that we are nonpartisan. They can go on our web site.

“There’s plenty we’ve written about about Clinton’s emails; there’s plenty that we’ve written about Donald Trump. There’s a lot of material out there, and I think that any fair assessment of our work would show that it is nonpartisan and we are down the middle providing information that critiques both sides. And if they don’t want to believe that, there’s nothing I can do about that.

Has he ever changed someone mind?

“We did a piece about President Obama not going to the funerals for (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia or (former first lady) Nancy Reagan. And the caller insisted that, ‘Well the reason he didn’t go is that he doesn’t go to any Christian services because he demands that they cover up the crucifix.’”

“... And I said, ’Well, what about (Vice President Joe Biden’s son) Beau Biden’s funeral? He went to Beau Biden’s funeral, he gave the eulogy. If you want I can show you a photograph of the crucifixion right there behind him. ... And he said, ‘Oops, well you got me. That’s right.’”

Kiely says campaigns are most likely to fire back if a core message is being challenged, and he expects that will increase.