A viewer's guide to the fine print
UPDATE:This story has been updated with new information on Aug. 15, 2008.
Maybe you've noticed them in some of Sen. Barack Obama's recent television ads, the small print footnotes at the bottom of the screen as the narrator attacks Sen. John McCain.
They cite newspaper articles, editorials, think tank reports and congressional votes. The print is so small and flashes so quickly, you'd have to freeze the frame to really read them.
But the message behind these barely noticeably source citations is important. They are intended to add credibility and weight to accusations being made. The intended effect: It must be real, it's got a footnote from the Washington Post.
In Obama's case, the source citations are intended to back up the accusations, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in political communication from the University of Pennsylvania. But they also help Obama "refute the charge that he's an empty suit full of empty rhetoric."
"It's a tacit refutation that he's speaking in platitudes," Jamieson said. "It's a very clever rhetorical strategy."
But beware, she said, citations don't always equal legitimate evidence.
Sometimes cited articles address a topic but don't fully back up the accusation be made. Worse, the source cited may have an ideological or political bent. In short, the citations themselves require scrutiny. And political operatives are betting voters won't give them any.
"If one voter out of 10,000 does that, I'd be surprised," said Allan J. Lichtman, professor of History at American University.
So how much stock should you place in the source citations? We took a look at several Obama TV ads and found that while some of the sources provided accurate documentation to back up the claims against McCain, others were far from airtight.
In a recent Obama TV ad called "Original," the announcer says of McCain: "He's for billions in new oil company giveaways while gas prices soar."
At the bottom, there's a footnoted source: "Center for American Progress Action Fund, 3/27/08." This refers to a report that analyzed how McCain's proposal to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent would translate to a reduction in taxes for the top four oil companies of nearly $4-billion. We looked at this claim when the ad ran, and ruled that the ad cherry-picked the facts to offer a misleading impression. All companies would get the tax cuts, not just oil companies, so the claim wrongly implies that McCain is proposing a special tax cut for oil companies. He is not.
It's also important to note who is behind the report. The Center for American Progress Action Fund is a think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta.
"It's almost like citing yourself," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter.
Rothenberg believes the citations which have become more and more commonplace — arose because voters had become so cynical about accusations in political ads.
"Now it's a different story," Rothenberg said, "Now it's, 'How reliable and credible is the reference?' There are ways to manipulate that."
For example, if you cite the New York Times, do you need to note if it was a news story, an editorial, an opinion column from one writer, or even a guest opinion piece?
In 1992, Bill Clinton ran an ad in which the announcer stated, "No wonder the Washington Post says George Bush is lying about Bill Clinton's record..."
The New York Times criticized the ad, in part, because it was not, as the ad implies, the institution of the Washington Post that said Bush was lying, but rather a local columnist for the Post.
Flash forward to Obama's "Original" ad. The announcer says: "John McCain supports Bush's tax cuts for millionaires." One of the sources cited in small print is "Ari Melber, Politico 7/22/08." David Mark, a senior editor at Politico said that while Melber's story was "certainly a reported article," it was an opinion piece.
Jamieson and others believe viewers might give different weight to an article if they knew it was written as opinion.
An Obama ad called "Low Road" begins with an image of McCain and the announcer stating, "He's practicing the politics of the past."
The ad then takes a page from movie trailers that steal snippets from movie reviews as part of their advertising campaign.
"John McCain," the announcer states. "His attacks on Obama...'Not True' (MSNBC 7/28/08)...'False' (FactCheck.org 7/28/08)...'Baloney' (USA Today Editorial 7/29/08)...'the low road' (New York Times Editorial) 7/30/08...'baseless' (Time 7/30/08).
Let's take these one by one.
• 'Not True,' MSNBC: This is about a McCain campaign ad that criticized Obama for his last-minute decision to cancel a visit with wounded troops in Germany during a recent political tour of Europe. "He made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops," an annoucer in the McCain ad states. "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
We at PolitiFact looked into this claim at the time and concluded that the McCain ad was stretching the truth.
In a July 28 television interview with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., MSNBC reporter Andrea Mitchell called the McCain ad "literally not true" and said that she could attest — as a member of the traveling press corps — that Obama had no intention of bringing cameras with him to visit wounded troops.
• "False," FactCheck.org: It's on the same topic. "McCain's facts are literally true, but his insinuation — that the visit was canceled because of the press ban or the desire for gym time — is false," the item states.
• "Baseless," Time: Also on the Germany issue. Reporter Karen Tumulty, in the magazine's Swampland blog, wrote "So how many more times are the McCain campaign and the Republicans going to repeat what is a thoroughly baseless charge?"
• "Baloney," USA Today editorial: The Obama camp gets points for noting that it was an editorial. It relates to a McCain campaign ad that suggests Obama is to blame for the high price of gas. "Even by the elastic standards of political ads, this is more than a stretch," the editorial states. "It's baloney."
• "The low road," New York Times editorial: Again, the ad notes that it is an editorial, though the phrase is borrowed from the headline, "Low-Road Express." The editorial takes McCain to task for a litany of what it characterizes as false charges against Obama. Among them, "that Mr. Obama opposes 'innovation' on energy policy; that he voted 94 times for 'higher taxes'; and that Mr. Obama is personally responsible for rising gasoline prices."
The citations do accurately reflect what those sources said, but the ad takes evaluations of very specific McCain claims and gives them a more far-reaching import. As presented, the ad essentially states, for example, that "His (McCain's) attacks on Obama (are) false," according to FactCheck.org. That's not true. Many of McCain's attacks on Obama are true.
Jamieson, who works at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, which produces FactCheck.org, said she felt like the quote was a distortion.
"I saw that and said, 'FactCheck should fact-check that,'" Jamieson said.
To be fair, there are some citations in the Obama ads that do accurately reflect the sources cited, and do back up some of the accusations in the ads.
For example, one ad correctly cites a congressional vote in Nov. 2005, in which McCain voted, in the majority, against a bill to impose a temporary windfall profit tax on crude oil.
In other instances, the source is cited correctly, but context is in order. One such ad notes that McCain "has voted with Bush 95 percent of the time" and cites a 2007 voting study performed by Congressional Quarterly.
We examined that claim at PolitiFact and although we ruled it to be True, we noted that the 95 percent refers to only a single year, 2007. It happens that 2007 was a highwater mark in McCain's voting agreement with Bush.
In the end, Lichtman concludes that attack ads that cite sources should not be accepted as giving accusations any greater authority or factual accuracy.
"I think it's a good tactic," Lichtman said. "But that's what it is, a tactic. For us skeptics, it doesn't mean much. Anyone who gets their facts from political ads get what they deserve."
Update: Although the McCain campaign had not been using this footnote-style of campaign ad, lo and behold, the very day after this item was posted, it did.
The ad, called "Taxman," cites items from three newspapers to bolster its argument that "Obama's new taxes could break your family budget." Although not noted, all three citations are to newspaper editorials, two of them from historically conservative-leaning editorial boards. Like Obama's "Low Road" ad, the McCain ad tries to pin broad media consensus on single stories. For example, it cites a Wall Street Journal editorial to underpin its statement, "The press warns the 'Taxman cometh.'" The ad also repeats a similar McCain campaign refrain, that Obama is for "higher taxes," without noting that that while wealthy Americans would see higher taxes under Obama's plan, middle class Americans would likely see a tax decrease. For those reasons, we rated the ad Barely True.