Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing are competing for the low-carb beer drinker. Miller claims Miller Lite has half the carbohydrates of Bud Light – an empirically true assertion. Busch declares all light beers are low in carbohydrates – also true – and consumers should choose the better-tasting beer. While this board expresses no preference on light beer, nor finds the choice fundamental to society, we appreciate their accuracy and framing of the question.
Unfortunately, less can be said for the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. A Kerry ad charges that Bush said outsourcing jobs “makes sense.” Bush never said that. A later news release incorrectly claimed Bush signed a report that made the statement. In truth, the idea appears in the 2004 Council of Economic Advisers Annual Report, fully separate from, though physically delivered with, the 2004 Economic Report of the President, which Bush did sign.
Bush’s ads can match Kerry’s inaccuracy for inaccuracy, and misdirection for misdirection. One claims Kerry has “wacky” ideas, such as charging more for gas to encourage less consumption, and claims Kerry voted 11 times for gas tax hikes.
In reality, Kerry did vote nine times for gas tax hikes; one “vote” was a quote to a reporter in 1994, and another opposed eliminating the tax altogether, supporting no “hike.” The ad’s most troubling aspects are not the inaccuracies. Where it misleads, while being technically correct, is that the nine votes all relate to one 4.3 cent gas tax increase in 1993.
Food ads are accurate because the Food and Drug Administration monitors them. Similar monitoring of political ads seems abhorrent to free speech. But given mass media and short news cycles, false claims effectively become “true,” as many accept the original idea, while few notice the retractions and corrections. As such, we should consider basic fact-checking of political ads. While any plausibly accurate message should run, those failing this standard detract from the purposes of uninhibited political speech: thoughtful debates and an informed public.
As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”