In June 2010, Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group, began airing television advertisements critical of several Republican senators who had taken campaign donations from the oil industry and voted in ways favored by the industry.
Here's the full text of the narration of the ad targeting Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. (The other ads are identical except that the names and campaign donation totals are personalized to the targeted senator).
"Every day, oil continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, and oil money pours through the halls of Congress," the narrator says. "And $426,000 of it flows right into the pocket of our senator. What's worse than taking big bucks from big oil? Wiping out protections that hold polluters accountable. Yep. Even with disaster on our coast and Iran using oil money against us, Richard Burr voted to let big oil off the hook. Sen. Burr, next time, look out for America's clean energy future, not big oil profits."
This narration is accompanied by a string of visuals, including footage of oil gushing out of the damaged BP well head, oily water washing on a beach, an oil-covered bird, an oil burn in the Gulf of Mexico, a hand-lettered "Beach Closed" sign, and an aerial view of vessels working on the recovery from the oil spill.
Given the focus in both the narration and the visuals on the oil spill, we think that reasonable people watching the ad would assume that the vote it references -- "to let big oil off the hook" -- would have something to do with the spill itself, such as a vote to limit BP's liability for paying damages.
But that's not the case.
The vote cited in an on-screen footnote was on a procedural motion to take up a joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. This measure would disapprove a rule submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency that classified greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That classification would allow the EPA to act to curb emissions by big polluters that could be causing global warming.
The resolution was the latest salvo in a fight between industry and environmentalists over curbing emissions. The EPA effort, blocked during the Bush administration, was revived after Barack Obama became president. The vote was seen as a key preliminary vote in advance of possible Senate consideration of a "cap-and-trade" emissions bill -- a major bone of contention between the parties.
Major oil companies could be at a competitive disadvantage if EPA acts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, since burning oil and other fossil fuels produces a lot of carbon dioxide.
It's worth noting that the resolution failed by a 47-53 vote, so the Senate never actually did wipe out what the group terms "protections that hold polluters accountable." But there's little question that the vote was an important one. "If ever there was a vote to find out whose side you are on, this is it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But was it related to the oil spill? Not really. And to us, that makes it an example of an ad that isn't wrong, but is misleading.
The ad says nothing about the specific topic of the vote at issue -- be it greenhouse gases, emissions, or global warming -- but it does mention the oil spill several times in the narration. And almost all of the imagery highlights the spill. To us, the ad's strong implication is that the vote had something to do with law or policy relating directly to the spill.
Americans United for Change stands by its ad.
"Just as Big Oil lobbied against more stringent [Minerals Management Service] regulations, they lobbied for lax carbon regulations," said Jeremy Funk, the group's communications director. "We’re not claiming that the Murkowski resolution has anything to do with spill other than the fact that it’s emblematic of how Big Oil looks after their bottom line instead of what’s best for the American people. ... We’re talking about a pattern of behavior here."
We agree it's fair game for Americans United for Change to link campaign contributions from the oil industry to votes that support industry positions, and it's within acceptable political discourse for the group to say that Burr and his fellow Republican senators "voted to let big oil off the hook" by their vote on the Murkowski resolution. But we think the ad overplays its hand on the oil spill to such a degree that it risks misleading viewers about the nature of the vote being criticized. We rate the ad Half True.