San Diego Union Tribune

October 4, 2004

Truth be (not) told

Watchdog groups say misstatements, distortions by both candidates plague presidential race, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction


WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry's supporters leave voters with the impression that President Bush wants to put machine guns in the hands of civilians.

He doesn't.

Bush backers want voters to think Kerry advocates more abortions in this country.

He doesn't.

Repeatedly in this year's presidential jousting, the campaigns have twisted the opposing candidate's votes, decisions, speeches and statements to convince voters that the other guy said or did something that he really didn't.

"It's the sheer volume of deception that's bothersome this year," said Bryan Keefer, co-founder of, a nonpartisan Web site that analyzes statements made in the presidential race. "Judging from the e-mail we get every day, there's an emerging sense among voters that they're getting spun, and a real desire to know what the truth actually is."

President Bush


In Thursday's debate, he said "75 percent of known al-Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice."


The president was referring to deaths and arrests of operatives who powered al-Qaeda when it mounted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not those involved in the organization today. Al-Qaeda has been refilling its ranks and leadership.


"My opponent at one time said, 'Well, get me elected, I'll have them out of there in six months.'"


Kerry actually said he believed he could "significantly reduce" U.S. troop levels in Iraq within six months of taking office, not that he wanted to withdraw all troops.


He said his administration has increased spending on curbing nuclear proliferation by "about 35 percent" after taking office in January 2001.


In Bush's first budget, he proposed a 13 percent cut – about $116 million. Much of the increases since then have been added by Congress.

– SOURCES: Associated Press, and The Washington Post

In some cases, Bush and Kerry supporters don't just distort what a rival candidate did or said. Instead, they simply make things up.

In a series of ads, for instance, Democrats have blamed Bush for jobs lost to overseas workers. One such ad by the Media Fund, an anti-Bush group, showed a worker fuming that "when President Bush says he's going to help companies outsource jobs, it's infuriating."

Bush never said that.

What the president has said is this: "The best way to deal with job creation and outsourcing is to make sure our businesses are competitive here at home."

"Economic issues are where a lot of the deception is," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which in 2003 launched, a Web site similar to

Like "ad watch" and "truth check" reports in newspapers, the Web sites try to separate fact from fiction and are "a nice antidote to the back-and-forth news coverage over swift boats, Vietnam medals and Alabama National Guard records," said Campaigns & Elections Magazine editor David Mark.

Sen. John Kerry


In Thursday's debate and repeatedly on the campaign trail, the senator has said the United States has spent $200 billion on the Iraq war.

Reality found the cost to be just over $120 billion. Kerry includes money scheduled to be spent next year, money that hasn't been requested and money for Afghanistan.


"I would not take my eye off of the goal: Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded."


It has never been clear that bin Laden was in the caves of Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. and Afghan troops attacked the area.


Kerry said Bush is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons."


The research budget is less than $35 million. Nearly $500 million has been set aside in future budgets, but only if Congress and the president approve the weapons' production.

– SOURCES: Associated Press, and The Washington Post

In some cases, experts say, Web sites are replacing journalists as campaign watchdogs. Because of the speed, volume, complexity and sophistication of statements made during a presidential campaign, most reporters only have time to report what each side said.

"Increasingly, news organizations won't spend the money," said Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "The ambitious, expensive, fact-checking role is falling on fewer and fewer shoulders."

According to FactCheck and Spinsanity, the campaigns and their supporters are guilty of repeatedly misleading voters in ads, on the campaign trail, on their Web sites and at their nominating conventions.

One TV ad aired last month by, a liberal group that supports Kerry, showed a picture of an AK-47 assault rifle and said such guns can fire up to 300 rounds a minute – a challenging feat with the semiautomatic version of the weapon, which requires one pull of the trigger for each bullet fired – then simulates the sound of machine-gun fire. An announcer said Kerry, "a sportsman and a hunter, would keep" the weapon illegal.

"But on Sept. 13th," the ad announcer continued, "George Bush will let the assault weapons ban expire."

The message is that Bush wants civilians to own machine guns. Yet the assault weapons ban has nothing to do with machine guns or other fully automatic weapons, which civilians have not been able to own legally without U.S. Justice Department approval since 1934.

In urging Catholics not to support Kerry, a Republican National Committee Web site says Kerry once called for abortions "to be moved out of the fringes of medicine and into the mainstream of medical practice" – indicating the Democrat supports more frequent abortions.

But Kerry – a Catholic who has said abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" – actually said abortions should be conducted in safer locations.

In the debate and elsewhere, Kerry says the war in Iraq has cost America $200 billion, a figure that includes money Bush may ask for – but hasn't yet – and money intended not only for Iraq, but also for Afghanistan. The actual figure is just more than $120 billion.

Earlier in the campaign, Bush said that Kerry "voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people." He scaled this figure back in an August TV ad that said Kerry cast "98 votes for tax increases."

Forty-three of those votes would have kept taxes the same, or were for bills that set target levels for spending and taxes in coming years. The bills themselves would not have raised taxes.

Perhaps the most recent example of campaign distortion was the warning by Kerry and Democratic officials that another Bush term would lead to higher casualties in Iraq and catastrophes that include – as Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said in a speech – "a mushroom cloud over any American city."

Such tactics are not new. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign produced the infamous "Daisy ad" that morphed a girl picking daisies into a mushroom cloud – implying that Republican nominee Barry Goldwater would lead the country into nuclear war.

Bush and Kerry continued to mislead voters in Thursday's presidential debate.

For example, Bush said he has increased spending to curb nuclear proliferation by "about 35 percent." In his first budget, Bush proposed a 13 percent cut in such spending. Congress added most of the increases.

As for Kerry, he said Bush is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons." The current research budget for such weapons is less than $35 million.

In the debate, Bush said that Kerry once claimed he could have troops out of Iraq "in six months." In an August interview on National Public Radio, Kerry said he believed he could "significantly reduce" U.S. troops in Iraq within six months of taking office under the right circumstances.

Do voters believe these distortions? It depends.

A recent survey by independent pollster John Zogby on the swift boat controversy – Bush supporters claim Kerry did not earn his Vietnam medals and betrayed his comrades by speaking out against the war – shows that voters overwhelmingly believe Kerry.

On the other hand, The Washington Post recently reported that although the president has changed his positions on key issues as often as Kerry, the Bush campaign has successfully convinced many voters that Kerry is "wishy-washy."

In fact, a TV ad aired by "People of Color United" charged that Kerry comes "across as rich, white and wishy-washy." The main financier of "People of Color United" is J. Patrick Rooney, a rich, white, insurance-company owner who supports Bush.

Said Spinsanity's Keefer: "What's really troubling is the new low we've reached, and the standard it's going to set for campaigns to come."

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