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.