In a new TV ad, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold goes back in history, reviving images from his successful 1992 campaign when he painted promises on his garage door in Middleton. Facing a tough re-election battle, the Wisconsin Democrat tells voters he owns the same house and is still the small-town fella they elected 18 years ago -- except that today he posts promises on a website instead of his garage.
It’s not exactly what you would call an attack ad. But it was enough to open the door for an attack by WISN-AM talk radio host Mark Belling.
"I’m going to make an accusation here, and I am very confident that I am correct in my accusation," Belling said in the first hour of his Sept. 28, 2010 program. "That ad is a fake. That ad is a fake. Feingold is not standing in front of his house in this new ad. They faked it."
Belling said he checked out the ad himself and cited an expert source he said he could not identify.
"Ninety minutes of my life today was spent frame-by-framing this through the Internet to find the tipoffs that have convinced me the ad is fake," he told his listeners. "…My contention is Russ is standing in the studio."
On his website, Belling posted a link to the ad with this headline: "This Feingold Ad Is A Fake: He’s Not Standing In Front of His House."
While our primary focus at PolitiFact Wisconsin is fact-checking the promises, claims and accusations made by elected officials and candidates, we will also examine the words of other voices who shape the political discourse.
This was a strong accusation: Did a U.S. Senate candidate aiming to show off his roots back home fake the scene from a far-off TV studio?
Belling wasn’t the only person to suggest it.
A political blog affiliated with the conservative National Review said it appeared that Feingold had filmed his portion of the commercial elsewhere, in front of a "green screen," and then was superimposed in front of the Middleton house. This note was picked up by National Public Radio in a weekly game show heard by some 3 million people.
Both the blog and NPR withdrew their suggestions after the Feingold campaign complained it wasn’t true.
We asked Belling for his evidence.
"I have none," he said in an e-mail to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "It’s an accusation. They can deny it and if they're right, I'll admit it.
"But it's very fishy."
He went on to highlight his suspicions, including: "The bushes throw off a shadow; Feingold doesn’t"; and "His wave to the house looks fake. Why wave to a house when you’re in front of it." Also, the light is shining from the left, but Feingold’s left side "doesn’t seem lit,’’ Belling wrote.
And the feet: "Why do you not see Russ's feet? It's much harder to make it appear he's
standing on something than in front of it."
Belling declined to name his source, other than to say he was involved in video production and shared his suspicions.
"I have no proof,’’ Belling said. "I'm making an accusation that it's faked, and they can confirm or deny it."
So, we asked Feingold. Was he standing in his driveway when the ad was shot?
"I’m trying not to laugh," Feingold said. "Yes."
After spending the night at his Middleton house, Feingold said, he attended the dedication of a war memorial in Sauk Prairie on Aug. 28 while the production crew set up in the driveway. Then he returned home to shoot the commercial.
His campaign provided a still photo shot during the filming that shows Feingold in front of the house with a crew member identified as Rob Wernette, a freelance grip from Milwaukee.
An employee for the WisPolitics.com website also saw the ad being filmed, with Feingold standing in his driveway. Jeff Mayers, president of WisPolitics, said one of his employees saw Feingold filming the ad in front of his home and the employee confirmed it when contacted by PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Feingold said plenty of folks passed by the house during the two-hour filming, some beeping and giving him a thumbs up.
Feingold complained that he has received a lot of "cheap shots,’’ but that "this is the dumbest one of all time.’’
We’re not aware of any ranking of cheap shots, so we won’t weigh in on that.
As for Belling’s accusation, the veteran talk show host tried to turn Feingold’s own ad against him, to suggest he’s so out of touch with state voters that he was even out of state when the ad was filmed. He said he based his assertion on his own review of the photography and on one unnamed source, who had no knowledge of how the shoot was conducted but who thought it looked fishy. As for Belling’s proof, we’ll use his own words to describe it: "I have none."
And we’ll add three words of our own: Pants on Fire.
(Note: On Sept. 30, 2010, Belling changed his position and said the Feingold ad was not faked).