Cincinnati Enquirer unpacks campaign claims

Ohioans will need more help from their media navigating candidates' rhetoric

OHIO — The drumbeat of political ads and campaign claims and counter-claims continues to grow louder in the Buckeye State—and will no doubt grow louder still before Election Day.

On Monday, President Obama made his ninth Ohio stop this year, for a town hall meeting in Cincinnati. His GOP opponent Mitt Romney makes his 13th Ohio appearance today (in Bowling Green and Canton, while Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stumps for Romney in southwest Ohio), and Vice President Joe Biden will be in Columbus Thursday at a union hall.

Each visit comes with often overheated rhetoric from candidates and surrogates and new obligations for the state’s media to help Ohioans sort through it all.

Of the three major newspapers covering Obama’s Cincinnati visit on Monday, the Cincinnati Enquirer made the best effort for its audience by putting under the microscope three claims made by the president (about Romney’s corporate tax proposal, Romney’s plans for individual income taxes, and about oil production being at an eight-year high). Coverage from the Dayton Daily News and the Columbus Dispatch, unfortunately for readers, was largely “he-said, she-said.”

The Enquirer’s piece (headlined, “Fact-checking President Obama’s Remarks”) was compiled by Deirdre Shesgreen, who focused first on Obama’s criticisms of Romney’s plan to overhaul the US corporate tax system (something, Shesgreen explained, both candidates want to do, “but they would revamp it in dramatically different ways.”) Shesgreen helpfully laid out the current state of affairs relating to corporate taxes and the differences in the candidates’ visions of what should be changed, while also referencing what critics say about each candidate’s proposal.

Armed with this information, readers could better judge Obama’s on-the-stump claim that Romney’s plan to eliminate US taxes on foreign income of US companies (designed, proponents say, to encourage multinational corporations to reinvest their profits back in the US) actually incentivizes companies to create jobs overseas— “800,000 jobs,” Obama said. To buttress this claim, the president cited an analysis published in the journal Tax Notes and written by Kimberly A. Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College, arguing that Romney’s plan would “encourage job creation abroad instead of at home.”

The Romney campaign pushed back a bit, Shesgreen reported, noting that “Clausing assumes an effective tax rate of 27.1 percent—2.1 percent higher than Romney has urged. Clausing wrote in her article that if the effective tax rate were lower, then the job creation figures would drop in response.” This is pretty deep in the weeds of a complicated policy argument, so the Enquirer is appropriately restrained in its judgment of the campaigns’ rhetoric. But the item usefully explains where Obama gets his numbers from, and the logic behind his claim—as well as what the counterarguments are.

(Team Romney also characterized this “nonpartisan” study as tainted, as the Dayton Daily News noted in its story—but the Enquirer did not—because Federal Election Commission records show that Clausing has contributed $742 to Obama’s campaign since 2008 and she has also given to other Democrats. The Columbus Dispatch’s Joe Hallett, too, made a passing reference to Clausing’s Democratic contributions with a quote from the Romney campaign.)

For the other two Obama claims the Enquirer’s Shesgreen examined (on individual income taxes and oil production), the paper helpfully cited analyses done by and, but does not link readers to those analyses. (The paper’s political blog carried a more in-depth look at oil production, links included).

It’s difficult work to scrutinize assertions made by the candidates in the whirlwind of campaign appearances. But it is necessary work that, as the Enquirer demonstrated, can be informed and assisted by outside factcheckers, and that Ohioans will need their media to do more of in the days and months ahead.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.