‘That muddy water’ of fairness

With “Line of Attack," Sun evaluates “legit," “laughable” campaign claims

NEVADA — I can’t recall who came up with the idea of a digital video recorder that automatically skips past the commercials. If the product’s actually on the market, it should be flying off the shelves here in Nevada, where we viewers find ourselves drowning in a sea—some might call it a swamp—of political campaign ads.

“You turn on the television and you can’t get away from it. Even my nine-year-old is asking me if (Democratic Congresswoman and US Senate challenger) Shelly Berkley is a bad person,” said Anjeanette Damon, political editor at the Las Vegas Sun.

Damon’s son wasn’t the catalyst for the paper’s “Line of Attack,” a relatively new weekly feature that dissects campaign ads and other messaging, but he could have been. Between now and Election Day, the installment promises to analyze not just ads but news releases, direct mail flyers, and even the spiel of campaign volunteers knocking on doors here in the Silver State. The series will alternate every week between Republican and Democratic messages, with an emphasis on current attacks, Damon said.

Of course, the idea of a dedicated outlet to scrutinize the merits of campaign messages isn’t original. We’re in the midst of what has been dubbed a “factchecking explosion,” with outlets like The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog, the Tampa Bay Times’s PolitiFact and its regional franchises, and FactCheck.org all staking a claim, along with a steady stream of factcheck stories from The Associated Press.

But the Sun’s approach is unique in a couple of ways. First, with circulation of 167,000, it’s a relatively small publication to be tackling what can be a labor-intensive column. (Due to a joint operating agreement, the Sun’s print edition is a sometimes-overlooked section tucked inside the much larger Las Vegas Review-Journal.)

Second, the Sun’s feature doesn’t use the standard lingo of the factchecking industry, which generally tries to sort out true and false claims, and labels the most outrageous assertions as lies, if only idiomatically. (The Post’s Glenn Kessler awards “Pinocchios”; PolitiFact’s lowest rating is “Pants on Fire.”) Instead, the Sun’s approach evaluates an attack’s fairness: each item concludes with a “fairness meter,” and the headline of many installments asks “Is it fair…?” In keeping with that approach, Damon and her team of political writers assign each attack they evaluate a rating on the following scale: Legit, Eye Roll, Guffaw, Laughable, and Outrageous.

As a result, the paper’s approach may sidestep an issue that many critics, including some at CJR, have raised about the factcheckers—the difficulty they face in pushing back at political rhetoric that’s irresponsible or unfounded, but not demonstrably false. Greg Marx, one of my CJR editors, has written that “the factcheckers have set their sights on identifying not only which statements are true, but which are legitimate.” That’s the Sun’s target too, and its language matches that goal.

In an interview last week, Damon told me that her paper’s fairness scale wasn’t driven by critiques of other similar features.

“Truth is a difficult thing to label. And gradations of truth are even more difficult things to label, so it does keep us from that [type of criticism],” she said. “Maybe that’s just, I guess, maybe a happy consequence we hadn’t anticipated.”

As they set about their work, the Sun writers use a template that defines the structure of their analyses, she added.

“What is the attack? How is it delivered? What’s the strategy behind it? What’s the messaging component there? How does it fit into the larger picture of the campaign and what the candidate’s trying to accomplish?” Damon explained.

“And then the fairness, that’s where you kind of get into that muddy water… Campaigns work very hard to find nuggets that they can back up, often with independent reporting or public records. They use them in such a way that sometimes they might have a fact, but they’re taking it either so out of context or they’re putting it in a different context that it isn’t fair.”

The system gives Sun writers room to exercise their judgment—as in a July 29th item by Karoun Demerjian that assigned a “legit” rating to a pro-Obama ad that asks, “What is Mitt Romney hiding?” even though, as Demerjian noted, the ad’s insinuation that Romney may have paid no federal income taxes in some years is likely not true (or, in the Sun’s terms, that suggestion “elicits eye rolls and guffaws”). And while not everyone will agree about what constitutes a fair attack, the brief posts generally include enough background information to allow readers to begin to draw their own conclusions.

For its various differences, though, the feature has clear similarities to the work done by the factchecking sites—resemblances underscored by an August 5th post by David McGrath Schwartz that deemed an ad from a pro-Romney group “laughable,” and that concluded with a link to a similar item by PolitiFact.

Damon said the Sun column is generating a good deal of buzz—not so much from campaign staffers as from ordinary readers.

“Some of these Lines of Attack get a lot of comments on the website,” she said. “The one that I did on Obama’s ‘You didn’t build that,’ which kind of exploded nationally—that Line of Attack got 141 comments, which is a lot.” (It also got a laurel from CJR.)

She added that it’s hard to tell whether the response is a signal that the feature is a success, or “just that we’re plugging into what the debate of the week is.” Either way, it sounds as though she and her team are succeeding at the goal they set for Line of Attack: “to provide useful information for voters who are trying to make a decision in the campaign and are just constantly deluged with 24/7 ads.”

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.