The mistakes of summer

SUMMARY: An analysis of our Truth-O-Meter rulings finds the candidates have been telling more whoppers since summer began.

In the presidential campaign, truth has been a casualty of summer.

We've rated more than 600 claims on our PolitiFact Web site since the campaign began and last week made an interesting discovery: The candidates, political parties and independent groups we've been rating have become significantly less truthful in the past two months.

Before summer, we found that 65 percent of the claims we checked were on the upper end of our Truth-O-Meter, Half True, Mostly True or True, while 35 percent were on the bottom end — Barely True, False or Pants on Fire. That's not a great track record, but it's better than we would have expected.

The start of summer — which roughly coincided with the kickoff of the general election campaign between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain — was a turning point.

Since then, only 55 percent of the claims have earned a Half True or better, while 45 percent have been Barely True or lower. Those numbers aren't scientific because we choose the items to check based on our own curiosity about which statements are accurate. But they confirm our suspicions that the candidates have been stretching the truth more in the past two months.

The biggest change has come in the number of claims we've rated Barely True. They accounted for 12 percent of our ratings before summer began, but 22 percent in the past two months. That reflects the unusually aggressive ads we've seen lately. It's only August, but on the campaign trail, it feels like October.

In previous elections, the campaign slowed down during the summer, allowing everybody (especially voters) to get a break after the primary battles. The general election campaign did not really gear up until Labor Day.

This year, the candidates and their surrogates have been going full-tilt, firing charges and countercharges like it was the final sprint of October. They've been leveling the kind of charges that, in previous years, would have been held back until the last few weeks.

In keeping with the summer theme, it's fitting that the campaigns are doing a lot of cherry-picking. They find a few facts to support their attacks and pound away. (The McCain theme: Obama is a high-tax, big-government Democrat. The Obama theme: McCain is a carbon-copy of President Bush and a puppet of Big Oil.)

A grain of truth

The cherry-picking explains why we've rated so many claims Barely True. There's a grain of truth behind many of their claims, but they ignore contradictory facts and distort the overall truth.

A few examples:

• Obama's claim that McCain offers "billions in tax breaks for oil and drug companies, but almost nothing for families like yours." This one misleads about who would benefit from McCain's plan to reduce corporate taxes. It would lower taxes on all corporations, not just for those perennial Democratic villains, oil and drug companies. And the ad is wrong that McCain's plan offers nothing for middle-class families. McCain proposes doubling tax exemptions for dependents (usually children), a significant help for many families. We gave this one a Barely True.

• Obama's allegation that McCain worries about nuclear waste in Arizona, but not in Nevada. We found the Obama campaign used some creative editing to make its point, relying on a snippet of a McCain comment that he would not want the waste trucked through Phoenix. The ad conveniently left out the rest of his comment, that "I think it can be made safe." This ad also earned a Barely True.

• McCain's charge that Obama "promises more taxes on small business, seniors, your life savings, your family." This one, like several other McCain ads, is based on Obama's plan to roll back the Bush tax cuts on the upper-income brackets. So yes, it's accurate if you earn more than $200,000 per year. But the McCain ad is misleading because most people would not have higher taxes under Obama's plan. Another Barely True.

• McCain's claim that Obama plans "a tax increase for everyone earning more than $42,000 a year." That's based on the same flawed logic as the above item and was so wrong we gave it a False.

Other trends of summer

Another trend we've noticed is how chain e-mails have been evolving. They often seem like organisms that adapt to survive in a harsh environment.

PolitiFact and other news organizations have discredited many of the e-mails. No, Obama is not a Muslim, he didn't take the oath of office on a Koran and he does not want the national anthem to be I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (a joke from a satirical column that some Obama opponents have passed on as real).

A growing number of the e-mails now include a line that says, "I checked this out on Snopes and it's true," referring to the Web site that determines whether urban legends are accurate. That line is like a defense mechanism intended to reassure a skeptical reader.

But most of the e-mails that include the line are still false. So if you see it, be skeptical.

Another adaptation: a new chain e-mail that makes false claims that Obama plans to raise the capital gains tax. It's a variant of one we checked last spring that made inaccurate accusations about Obama and Hillary Clinton's tax proposals. In the new version, Clinton has been removed and some new false charges have been added.

As with most chain e-mails, we have no idea who wrote it, but it's been passed along by many people who haven't bothered to check out the facts.

We received another e-mail that used a different twist to spread misinformation: a bogus column. It purported to be written by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, claiming that Obama received millions of dollars in suspicious contributions from China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Dowd fans quickly knew it was a fake because, as one fan wrote, it had "no silly puns, alliteration, movie references, or odd nicknames."

We published a story about the bogus column and interviewed one man who was spreading it, but it continues to circulate widely.

We also saw how fast a false e-mail can spread — presumably to thousands and possibly millions of people. Just a day or two after Obama visited Afghanistan in July, an e-mail spread with lightning speed alleging that he had "shunned the opportunity to talk to soldiers to thank them for their service." (We checked it out and found it was False.)

We got that e-mail from many PolitiFact readers who asked us to check it out, and it received considerable press coverage elsewhere, which indicates how widely and quickly it spread. Looking ahead to the fall and claims we'll check from the candidates, their surrogates and chain e-mails, we're a little apprehensive.

If they're exaggerating and distorting this much in August, what will October be like?