Truth Squad targets false campaign claims

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Capital News Service
LANSING—Politicians across the state need more than persuasive advertising to draw voters. They now must be more cautious about the accuracy in their ads.
The Michigan Truth Squad, a nonpartisan project founded by the Center for Michigan, says telling the truth and having the facts aren’t a given for some candidates.
The Center for Michigan is a nonpartisan Ann Arbor think-tank.
The Truth Squad, new to voters this year, investigates claims made through advertising, websites, mailers and other campaign material.
Five Truth Squad referees investigate claims. Based on the findings, referees make a call. Those calls range from a basketball-style flagrant foul to technical foul, regular foul, warning or no foul.
So far, four state House candidates, 16 Senate candidates and both gubernatorial candidates and major parties are among those who’ve had their ads analyzed. Ads by other groups, such as unions and political advocacy organizations have been scrutinized too.
Politicians have mixed reactions to the scrutiny.
“We’ve had candidates who’ve not been pleased that we’ve called fouls on their ads,” said Truth Squad referee Susan Demas. “At the same time, opponents have used that in their own message.”
Whether the reaction is favorable or unfavorable, Demas said politicians pay attention to the assessments.
“Voters depend on candidates having truthful information in their political advertising,” said Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Norton Shores, whose advertising underwent Truth Squad review and received a “no foul” call.
“Being able to verify the truthfulness of political ads helps voters make sound judgments about who to vote for,” she said.
Bruce Vanden Bergh, a Michigan State University advertising professor, said he’s seen a national trend to review political claims on TV shows like the “Keeping them Honest” segment of the Anderson 360° Report on CNN.
“There seems to be a reaction to this blatant exaggeration and distortion that’s happened in the news media,” he said.
But standards aren’t the same for campaign and non-campaign ads because of the First Amendment right of free speech.
“When it comes to politicians, it’s different than commercial advertising that sells a product,” said Vanden Bergh. “When political speech is protected, you can lie in it, as long as it’s not libel.”
Senate candidate David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, received a “technical foul” because he failed to elaborate on how he’d reform tax structure, revitalize the economy and keep education funding.
The Truth Squad criticized him for having agendas, but no plans on acquiring more funding for the projects.
“Higher taxes and/or spending cuts in other areas of the budget would be needed, but LaGrand doesn’t say if he favors higher taxes and/or deep spending cuts,” the Truth Squad said. “He calls for cutting the 22 percent surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax, but doesn’t say how he would make up for the approximate $500 million annual revenue loss.”
Among the other legislative candidates whose ads have been fouled are Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, and Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.
Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, received a technical foul, which means a statement needs additional explanation, for “exaggerated claims about state spending and for vague solutions to problems Schuitmaker identifies in her plan for reforming Michigan government.”
Vanden Bergh said it’s possible that the Truth Squad will affect votes because younger generations get most of their information from the Internet.
The public can check the calls at
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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