BOB GARFIELD: In January, we spoke with Brooks Jackson, the ex-CNN correspondent and mastermind behind the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org. Nice idea, we thought, fact-checking political ads and political speech, with a view to holding the pols accountable for their distortions. But now the campaign is over, and we wondered if the site had any impact on the volume of lies generated by Campaign 2004 or even the public's awareness of them. Brooks, welcome back to the show.
BROOKS JACKSON: Good to be back, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it my imagination that for all of the fact-checking and truth-squadding and integrating fact-checking within the bodies of news stories on page one, that the last few days and weeks have actually seen an increase in, shall we say, the incautiousness of the campaigns?
BROOKS JACKSON: Oh, I think that's inevitable, and you'll always see the pitch sort of steps up in the last week of a campaign. We've seen-- an ad from the Bush campaign featuring a pack of hungry wolves, sort of symbolic of Al Qaeda, I suppose, blaming Kerry for voting for cuts in intelligence spending that would leave us vulnerable. And we've seen a, an ad from an independent pro-Kerry group that questions whether the draft is going to be re-instated, because of Bush's policies in Iraq. So there you have it. I mean if you believe the ads, the choices in this election are between being devoured by wild animals or having your loved ones conscripted and sent off to a war zone.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about the wolves for a moment, because I think that is a nice window into the technique of the political consultants who craft these things. It states that Kerry voted against a certain appropriation after the attack on the World Trade Center. And there are two interesting facts that qualify that. First, the attack that it refers to was the 1993 attack -- not 9/11 -- and secondly, Kerry took a position on that bill that was identical to that which then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had taken with the Congress. But all of that context is absent.
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, the ad is careful to state that Kerry's vote - the one they're referring to - came after the first terrorist attack, but many people hear that as the first attack on the World Trade Center tower and - in 2001 - even, I've talked to even journalists who are surprised when I point out to them that they're talking about the truck bomb that went off in the basement of one of the World Trade Center buildings in 1993. If you don't listen very carefully, you can be misled. I know that for a fact. The ad also says that Kerry supported a 6 billion dollar cut in intelligence, "slashing," I think is the word they use. The fact is, when you lay it out and look at it, he voted for and actually sponsored a deficit reduction measure that included a one billion dollar cut in intelligence spending in 1994, followed by a four year freeze in spending at the same level, adjusted upward for inflation. And to put it further in context, we were spending an estimated 27 billion on intelligence overall at the time, so it represented about -- something under a 4 percent cut. I think a journalist would not call that "slashing." A journalist would call that "trimming."
BOB GARFIELD: Kerry, only a couple of weeks ago, had an ad out that lied blatantly about the president's plans for Social Security, and I use the word "lied" advisedly. You don't seem to use it much on FactCheck.org, but don't you regard, as I do, the assembly of nominal facts to create a mis-impression as fundamentally a lie?
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, to me, a lie means an intentional and knowing falsehood, and since I don't know what they know, I'm not a mindreader, I guess I give them the benefit of the doubt. It's-- You're right -- we haven't used the word "lie" to characterize anything a candidate's said on our website. We use terms like "distortion" and "misleading statement." "Statements out of context." "Not the whole story." "False," if they are false, and we think we can prove it. But a lie? I don't know. I, I-- I don't know what they're thinking. Maybe they actually believe some of this stuff, or all of this stuff that they're saying, and in a way, that would be kind of scarier than if they're lying, because one of these guys is going to be elected, and if they really believe all the bogus information that they're putting out, it doesn't bode well for the next four years.
BOB GARFIELD: Not to be too dispiriting or anything but-- on the question of what effect this has on the electorate itself, the program on international policy attitudes at the University of Maryland released a poll that found that a majority of Bush supporters, 72 percent, believe that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons or had a major weapon of mass destruction program. So, [LAUGHS] do you despair for the significance of your work, when clearly at least with this group, you're not getting through?
BROOKS JACKSON: No, I don't despair. I just think that we've been, as journalists, outclassed by those who would spin us, whether they're elected officials or, or people seeking elective office, or special interest groups. The world's just gotten to be, every year that I've been alive, a, a more complicated and bewildering place, and I don't think journalists' skills and the dedication of their bosses has kept up with the need to explain this world to our audiences.
BOB GARFIELD: Brooks, thanks once again for joining us.
BROOKS JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Brooks Jackson is director of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. [MUSIC]