New election low: distorting the fact-checking

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Sept. 11 memorial bells chimed with beautiful clarity Thursday, from Shanksville, Pa., to ground zero and beyond, a reminder of tragedy and our nation’s real enemies.

What a welcome respite, that serene sound, after days of presidential politics that roared and sputtered with a cacophony of distortion, innuendo and outright lies.

It got so bad the day before the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that -- one of the nonpartisan journalism websites heroically trying to strain truth amid all the sound and fury -- had to put out an extraordinary news release.


It chastised John McCain’s campaign for -- now get this -- distorting FactCheck’s debunking of distortions.

News organizations and these admirable truth-squadding outfits, including, do not collaborate. But in independent news reports and commentaries this week, they seemed to reach a consensus to say “enough” to the McCain camp’s efforts to demonize Barack Obama.

I’m not saying that Obama hasn’t told a few whoppers -- like suggesting McCain’s proposed corporate tax breaks are tailored specifically for oil companies or that his opponent seriously believes anyone making under $5 million is middle-class.

But it’s McCain and his foot soldiers who have really fouled the election airwaves in recent days, provoking the first flickerings of a backlash from the media.

Give credit to -- an online endeavor operated by Florida’s St. Petersburg Times along with Congressional Quarterly -- for unequivocally knocking down one of the McCainites’ biggest fabrications in recent days. You know, the one where Obama supposedly called Republican V.P. nominee Sarah Palin a pig.

For the half-dozen of you who haven’t heard about this kerfuffle: It began this week when Obama belittled McCain’s suggestion that McCain would bring change to Washington.


“That’s not change,” Obama told a responsive audience. “That’s just calling something -- the same thing -- something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.”

McCain operatives puffed themselves up with outrage about Obama’s “sexism.” Then they released a Web advertisement, disingenuously flashing text on the screen -- “Barack Obama on: Sarah Palin” -- while cutting to Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark.

As noted on PolitiFact, the ad gives no context for Obama’s remark -- context that made it clear the Democrat was belittling McCain’s claim that he is an agent of change.

PolitiFact rated the McCain ad “Pants on Fire” (as in “liar, liar”) on its Truth-O-Meter. “If anyone’s doing any smearing,” the site concluded, “it’s the McCain campaign and its outrageous attempt to distort the facts.”

Outrageous, but just a warmup for the smarmy untruth the McCain camp uncorked next --that Obama voted in his home state of Illinois to foist detailed sex education on kindergartners.

Often in the past, journalists who were confronted with such a lie opted for on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand reporting. That allows one politician to launch a fabrication, while another tries, often in vain, to swat it down.


McClatchy Co. newspapers (publisher of the Sacramento Bee and other papers) and reporter Margaret Talev admirably cast aside the wishy-washy approach. Looking at Obama and the Illinois sex-ed legislation, Talev concluded that McCain’s charge was “deliberately misleading.”

“As a state senator in Illinois, Obama did vote for, but was not a sponsor of, legislation dealing with sex ed for grades K-12,” the reporter explained. “But the legislation allowed local school boards to teach ‘age-appropriate’ sex education, not comprehensive lessons to kindergartners.”

That probably would have meant, at most, classes to help the youngest children fend off sexual predators.

Talev flagged the McCain ad for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

The truth-tellers in this campaign have not throttled McCain alone. PolitiFact, for example, has slapped Obama more than once, including for his false claim that McCain promised to continue the war in Iraq for 100 years. (McCain said the United States might need to keep military bases there for that long.)

It was the McCain team, however, that plumbed new depths this week by distorting a fact-checking outfit that had come to its aid.

It happened when FactCheck (a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center) shot down rumors flying around the Internet about Alaska Gov. Palin.


FactCheck rejected claims that Palin cut special education in Alaska, endorsed Pat Buchanan for president and joined the secessionist-leaning Alaskan Independence Party. (Her husband, Todd, was an AIP member.)

The McCainites tried to attribute anonymous Internet falsehoods to one individual: Surprise! Barack Obama.

Superimposing FactCheck’s “completely false, or misleading” finding over a photo of Obama, the Republicans suggested the Democrat had trumped up the charges.

FactCheck, however, found “no evidence” tying Obama to the anonymous Internet attacks. The muckrakers announced Wednesday that McCain & Co. had been “less than honest.”

Obama blew off the lies with a shrug and a smile when he visited David Letterman this week. But I suspect that many Americans’ reaction comes closer to sadness. Or anger.