Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Even in an age of fact checking, the whopper lives

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel speaks at the Cuyahoga County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner March 2011. Several of Mandel's statements as he campaigns for a U.S. Senate seat have earned low ratings on the Truth-O-Meter.
Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel speaks at the Cuyahoga County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner March 2011. Several of Mandel's statements as he campaigns for a U.S. Senate seat have earned low ratings on the Truth-O-Meter.

Josh Mandel's already casual relationship with the truth took a turn toward outright estrangement this month.

The Republican state treasurer and aspiring U.S. senator blamed incumbent rival Sherrod Brown for Ohio jobs relocating to China, a transparent attempt to turn Brown's strong position on foreign trade into a weakness.

Mixing audacity with absurdity, the claim earned a Pants on Fire rating from PolitiFact Ohio.

For the Mandel campaign, the rebuke from the fact-checking arm of The Plain Dealer was just another day at the office. Mandel has received three of PolitiFact Ohio's seven most recent Pants on Fire rulings. Of his 14 statements evaluated on the Truth-O-Meter since 2010, six have been deemed Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.

Politicians of all parties have been lying since the beginning of the republic. The two previous presidential administrations are perhaps best known for lies or untruths -- see Lewinsky, Monica, and weapons of mass destruction. And even in this, another presidential election year, rare is the day when a candidate does not utter or repeat a claim that will be debunked by PolitiFact or another independent truth squad.

Why do they do it?

Those who study politics and communications say the consequences appear to be minimal, at least for the liars.

Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign clearly was hurt when a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth distorted his service record in Vietnam. Since that election, fact-check journalism has become more mainstream and more instantaneous, if not more effective.

An earlier practitioner was Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College and a co-founder and editor of Spinsanity.org, a nonpartisan website that tracked political spin in the early 2000s. Nyhan and research partner Jason Reifler recently released a paper on fact-checking in politics, and a somewhat "pessimistic picture" emerged.

"Our research finds that corrections of misinformation frequently fail to change people's minds and sometimes makes things worse," Nyhan told The Plain Dealer in an interview last week. "It's not clear how many people are swayed by a fact-check."

The social phenomenon known as motivated reasoning is largely to blame.

"Most people don't base their opinions on the accumulation of factual material," said Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in polling and public opinion as a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Instead, said Bowman and others, people will weigh their own values and discussions with others when formulating opinions. And oftentimes, they seek out opinions that validate what they already believe. Put another way: A conservative voter listening to a Mandel speech is unlikely to question his dubious remarks about "fringe extremists" or bureaucrats. A newspaper's fact-check feature won't be enough to change his or her mind.

"We're in a culture where people still honestly believe Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born out of this country," noted Mary Beth Earnheardt, an assistant professor of journalism at Youngstown State University who has studied media effects. "Even though he has produced his birth certificate, there are people who still reject that."

Not that President Obama and his fellow Democrats have escaped fact-check ignominy. Obama has been dinged by PolitiFact for repeating a False claim about preventive health care saving money.

More recently and closer to home, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo won an ugly Democratic primary fight against Cleveland Rep. Dennis Kucinich with help from a factually challenged advertising attack. She stood by a blistering television commercial even after Kucinich publicly cried "Swift Boat" and PolitiFact Ohio determined the individual claims about Kucinich's voting record to be Half True and False.

Brown, the incumbent senator from Avon whom Mandel will face this fall, also has had a couple of brushes with the wrong end of the Truth-O-Meter. He has received two False ratings, though no Pants on Fires, since The Plain Dealer joined PolitiFact in 2010. Of the 20 Brown claims PolitiFact has checked, two others have been ruled Mostly False.

One of the False statements came from a fundraising email last June, when Brown's campaign wrote of a Republican "plan to end Medicare." PolitiFact Ohio found the claim misleading because it characterized the GOP plan as Medicare's unqualified death. Had it been presented as the plan to end Medicare "as we know it," Brown would have been more accurate, PolitiFact added.

Brown has since been careful to be precise when describing the GOP plan, said campaign spokesman Justin Barasky.

For all the gifts Mandel has, from his compelling personal narrative as an Iraq war veteran to a well-oiled fundraising machine, whoppers are fast becoming a calling card of his candidacy.

Others back down or soften their rhetoric once their statements have been publicly scrutinized, but Mandel doubles down. Consider his response in an interview last week when asked again to identify a single Ohio job that went to China because of a decisive vote by Brown.

"If that's the level of specificity you're looking for, you're the reporters -- you go do the grunt work," said Mandel, who lives in Beachwood. "Any reporter who doesn't believe Sherrod Brown is responsible for jobs going to China is simply out of touch."

PolitiFact Ohio already had done the "grunt work" and found that the examples cited by Mandel's campaign failed to back up his claim, hence the Pants on Fire rating. Right or wrong, Mandel vowed to repeat the assertion "again and again" and said he sees no downside.

His claims, he added, are "100 percent" truth.

"In the minds of so many Clevelanders we talk to, The Plain Dealer's PolitiFact project has zero credibility," said Mandel, a former state legislator and suburban councilman. "People we hear from -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- feel The Plain Dealer's PolitiFact project is completely biased, sensationalized and without credibility."

Mandel would not be the first conservative politician to win points on the right for battling the mainstream media. Sarah Palin made an art out of bemoaning "gotcha" questions. But Mandel denied that deliberate misinformation is part of his strategy.

Bill Burges isn't so sure. The Cleveland-area consultant, who worked on Brown's 2006 Senate victory and prior congressional campaigns, is unaffiliated this year but said Mandel's negative approach has caught his attention.

"If it's not purposeful, it's part of this drift to be as negative as you can, to say the most outrageous thing you can," Burges said. "I think it's obvious the things he ends up saying might not pass your PolitiFact test."

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