Accuracy in Truth Squading II

The Plain Dealer does it right

On Saturday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer punctured a few holes in an ad sponsored by the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The union, which is supporting Barack Obama, took to the airwaves to pump up its candidate in advance of the all-important Ohio primary. The ad featured a merchandise buyer who says her biggest worries about the future are about the health care system. A contractor adds that “Now we need Obama because we need someone who’s not going to be owned by the corporations.” A Gulf War veteran puts in his two cents: Obama, he says, “is going to stand up to the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make health care affordable.” The ad ends predictably with a small businessman intoning that “America needs a leader that cannot only inspire us, but has the plans to make America a better place for everyone.”

The PD ran the ad through its sniff test and found it had a “whiff of doubt.” Its critique takes aim at the ad’s subtext—corporations do not own Obama; he will stand up to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies; his fortitude will make health care affordable. Throughout the campaign Obama has said that he does not take money from Washington lobbyists. In an earlier post, we showed that—however you parse the word “lobbyist”—Obama does take money from special interests that make their case in Washington, including those connected with the health care industry. In its analysis, The Plain Dealer makes the same point. It doesn’t come out and say on its own that Obama has taken money from those who plead their causes before the government; it pins that charge on the Clinton campaign: “They say Obama is friendly with lobbyists and accepts campaign contributions from employees at law firms that lobby in Washington.” (CJR’s previous post also pointed out that both Clinton and Obama have taken money from law firms that may lobby on behalf of themselves or their clients.) The PD also checked in with the Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a database of campaign contributions. It told its readers that “both Obama and Clinton have each raised more than $130 million for the 2008 campaign with significant money linked to business interests.”

Apparently curious about what the union might get in return for stumping for Obama in the crucial primaries this week, the PD asked the SEIU to explain. A spokeswoman said that the union—which represents a million and a half public service workers, including nurses, hospital staff, and nursing home workers—was attracted by Obama’s ideas for health care reform. When a reporter pressed for specifics, the spokeswoman replied that Obama has “generated an excitement and a real ability to unite the country.” So much for details. Still, the Plain Dealer’s truth squad provides valuable context to help Ohioans understand the ad.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.