When Ads Blur the Truth, Will Coverage Fight Back?

Clarity within news stories can correct dubious claims

NORTH CAROLINA — With the 2012 campaign coverage beginning in earnest, journalistic fact-checking efforts are getting underway in this key swing state. This week, The News & Observer of Raleigh announced the launch of a new fact-check blog with an early focus on state races. And the other big McClatchy paper, The Charlotte Observer, paired its report on Mitt Romney’s Wednesday visit to Charlotte with a fact-check box assessing the presidential candidates’ competing claims on job figures.

These are welcome efforts, and a good start on the tough work that lies ahead. Another recent episode, unfortunately, offers an example of news coverage that fails to sufficiently sort out a war of words between rival campaigns—and as a result, leaves voters in the dark.

The episode began in late March, when Republican Robert Pittenger launched an attack ad against one of his nine GOP opponents in the race for the state’s ninth Congressional district, located in the Charlotte suburbs. The target was Republican Jim Pendergraph, a former Mecklenburg County sheriff (and former Democrat) and the candidate endorsed by retiring Republican U.S. Rep Sue Myrick. (Most experts consider the district safely Republican, especially since the lines were redrawn last year.)

Being an attack ad, the spot contained some nefarious-sounding claims. Among them: that Pendergraph, while Mecklenburg County sheriff, received a “secret taxpayer-funded bonus that broke government policy.” Visually, the spot was classic attack ad: grainy black-and-white images associated with Pendergraph juxtaposed against vibrant, colorful images associated with Pittenger; and faux headlines mixed with snippets of ripped-from-context quotes from local media (including The Charlotte Observer, credited in the ad for “expos[ing]” the “bonus” story).

The ad ran for about three weeks during local evening newscasts at a time when few other candidates could afford to get on the air. It has now completed its run on Charlotte’s airwaves—and, strangely, has disappeared from Pittenger’s YouTube channel and his campaign website, even though some of the candidate’s ads from his 2008 race for lieutenant governor are still available deeper in YouTube.

But on the campaign trail, the ad lives on. Pendergraph, without the funds to return fire on the airwaves, has defended himself against the ad’s assertions both at a candidates’ debate last week and, on Monday, at a press conference held specifically to push back against those claims.

So, how has the press in Charlotte fared in making sense of this dispute?

Let’s start with a positive example. On April 6, WFAE political reporter Lisa Miller and colleague Marshall Terry avoided the “he-said, she-said” trap, and instead helpfully walked listeners through the ad’s claims:

MILLER: Right now a lot of the attention has been focused on the showdown between former state senator Robert Pittenger and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph. Now, no finance reports are available yet, but Pittenger appears to be spending the most. He’s aired a few TV ads and the latest one is causing the stir. It’s the first attack ad of the campaign. Listen to this:

AD: Lifelong Democrat Jim Pendergraph. The Observer exposed his secret government bonus that broke government policy…

TERRY: Well, is there any truth to these charges?

MILLER: Well, that last part is misleading. What the ad refers to as a secret government bonus was actually money Pendergraph received for unused sick days, when he retired as sheriff. Now it was unusual, but it was approved by County Manager Harry Jones. But, yes, he was a Democrat including when he was sheriff. He said he changed four years ago and he says it’s not a big deal.

Money approved and received for unused sick days sounds a lot less nefarious than “secret government bonus that broke government policy” or, “secret, taxpayer-funded bonus,” the other variant in the ad. The latter characterization may make for better attack ad fodder, but it is also, as WFAE’s Miller explained without hesitation, misleading. As the segment demonstrates, a dissection of an ad’s claims can be brief and straightforward; it need not even be presented or packaged as a formal “fact check.”

Unfortunately, readers of the The Charlotte Observer’s news pages did not receive similarly clear guidance. The Observer’s opinion side, by contrast, did dissect the ad’s assertions. But news reporters (and editors) ought to feel empowered to do the same, especially in ways that travel with the news stories as they move beyond printed pages and bounce around the Internet.

What did the Observer’s coverage look like? On March 30, with Pittenger’s ad in fresh rotation, the paper devoted an article to what the lede called the “first attack of the 9th District congressional primary.” The second paragraph repeats the ad’s claims—claims dubbed “misleading,” two paragraphs later, not by the reporter but, less convincingly, by Pendergraph’s campaign manager. The piece goes on to quote a professor about the strategy behind Pittenger’s ad—a common approach that sidelines questions about the accuracy of candidates’ claims, as Swing States correspondent Brendan Nyhan has noted.

And what about those Pittenger claims called “misleading” by the target’s campaign manager? Three paragraphs at the end of the Observer report offered background related to the ad’s claims. This material likely left readers with a sense that the ad takes some liberties. But, how so, exactly? Readers were left to sort most of it out themselves.

That approach held true in an April 4 Observer news report about Pendergraph’s continued pushback against the ad. That same day, meanwhile, the Observer’s opinion page offered clear assessment of Pittenger’s ad, declaring that “anyone who has followed Pendergraph’s career knows [Pittenger’s claims are] misleading at best.”

On April 12, back on the news pages, the Observer reported that the ad sparked a confrontation between Pendergraph and Pittenger at a candidates’ forum. Though there’s a crowded field competing for the seat, the majority of the piece was devoted to the back-and-forth between Pendergraph and Pittenger—again, with no clear adjudication.

On that same day, the Observer’s editorial page associate editor, Peter St. Onge, provided a detailed online breakdown of Pittenger’s ad at the paper’s “O-pinion” blog. Among the “questionable elements” he identified: the ad’s claim that the Observer “exposed” Pendergraph’s “secret bonus,” when the Observer simply reported, among other things, on how the payment of unused vacation days came to light. St. Onge also locates and links to a copy of the ad, noting that it has disappeared from Pittenger’s campaign site and YouTube channel; and debunks the ad’s claims that Pendergraph’s payment was “hidden” or “secret,” or that there’s evidence, as the ad implies, of “back-scratching” between Pendergraph and the official who gave the green light to the payment. Some of the ad’s claims, he concludes, go “a step past sloppy toward misleading.”

St. Onge’s post closes with a moral judgment—that the ad is “really dirty politics”—which may have its proper home in the opinion section. But the bulk of his post is digging through history, unearthing relevant facts, and offering clear statements about the veracity of campaign claims. Those are all tasks that could be, and should be, done in news articles, especially because there’s no guarantee that the people reading those articles, either online or in print, will also see the opinion blog post.

It’s that last part—assessing the veracity of claims—that feels uncomfortable to many reporters, I’m sure, since they’re used to keeping themselves removed from the story. And in an environment where campaigns seek to take advantage of news outlets’ brand and credibility, journalists might reasonably worry that measured attempts to weigh in (“true, but…”) could be fodder for further truth-stretching TV ads or political mailers (TRUE!). (And speaking of those mailers…)

But without those clear statements, supported by all the relevant facts, it can be impossible to move beyond endless iterations of he-said, she-said coverage. As Nyhan wrote in November, when misleading claims fly, rather than simply outline strategic considerations or document the sparring between campaigns, reporters should identify credible outside experts and also be prepared to “characterize the accuracy of ads in their own voice.”

It’s great to see opinion-page staff help clarify the political rhetoric. But fact-checking is more than just opinion, even in our post-modern world. Facts—and the conclusions that flow from them—belong on news pages, on news sites, and in news stories. The readers are counting on it.

To end on a high note: the simple, clear words from WFAE’s Miller on Pittenger’s ad provided a smart model for journalists. And The News & Observer’s fact-check, and the jobs claim box at the Observer, signal strong work ahead on behalf of North Carolina voters. We’re going to need it, considering the ad war has hardly begun.

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Andria Krewson is an independent journalist in Charlotte and a student in the University of North Carolina's master of arts in technology and digital communication. She worked at The Charlotte Observer for many years. Find her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/underoak or http://twitter.com/akrewson.