BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For 20 years, news organizations have increasingly acted as election campaign truth squads, vetting TV ads for the sort of vile misrepresentations that have so contaminated the political process. Some believe that such vigilance has chastened sleazy political consultants, at least in the arena of the 30-second spot. But electioneering has adjusted and is now far beyond a mere media buy. Pamphleteering, push polling, last-minute automated telephone barrages have simply moved the sleaze elsewhere, often below the radar of the truth squads. So now, to combat such guerilla tactics, ABCNews.com is deputizing the electorate, asking readers and viewers to keep their eyes open for campaign excesses. Mark Halperin heads the political unit of ABC News. He joins us now. Mark, welcome to OTM!
MARK HALPERIN: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You describe suspect political communications as messages that are false, logically flawed, racist or race-baiting, religion-baiting, sexist, class warfaring or deeply personal. That's a lot of nasty stuff. What forms does it take?
MARK HALPERIN: It can be as low-tech as a flyer left on a windshield Sunday before the election, and as high-tech as internet e-mails or, or pop-up ads. The content, of course, is what matters, but these delivery systems are, whether they're low tech or high tech, very hard to track even for a news organization that's willing to make the effort.
BOB GARFIELD:Now you've covered a lot of election cycles and you've seen plenty of sleaze, but there was one particularly egregious example from the past that-- inspired this whole watchdog program. Is that right?
MARK HALPERIN: In 1996 in the Republican Primary in New Hampshire Bob Dole who had not done well in the, in the Iowa Caucuses came into New Hampshire critical, of course, people know the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary have a disproportionate influence on the process. Bob Dole's campaign was fading very fast in New Hampshire; Pat Buchanan who ended up winning the primary was doing quite well, and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee was also doing well. On the last weekend, the Dole campaign made some negative phone calls that were of questionable truthfulness about Lamar Alexander. Lamar Alexander is convinced to this day that if those calls hadn't been made that he would have done very well in New Hampshire, had beaten Bob Dole. Bob Dole would have finished third, and, and many people think, and I, I agree that Lamar Alexander would have probably gone on to have been the Republican nominee had it not been for those calls. Those calls -- people heard about them in the last weekend; they knew they were out there. But no one was able to pin down what was said, and in fact the Dole campaign was the one making the calls. That was a case where I think the outcome really was affected by the press's inability or unwillingness to get on top of these calls even in the last weekend.
BOB GARFIELD: So you're asking the electorate itself to do the media's work for it and to call these--things to your attention.
MARK HALPERIN:Even major news organizations like ABC News or the New York Times expend millions of dollars trying to cover the news including elections -- can't be everywhere, and campaigns that send messages that are in some way misleading or unfair don't go out of their way to let the media know they're happening. They go out of their way to do it in ways the media won't know. So that we think the best way to track these things down are from citizens, because of course they're the targets of the campaigns. They are going to get these messages, and we want people when they see them to not just say well that seems unfair to me or I don't understand that or I know that's wrong, but to tell us about it so we can try to look at it and make a professional judgment about whether there's something misleading or improper about the message.
BOB GARFIELD: So how long have you been asking for this kind of material and, and what have the deputies rounded up?
MARK HALPERIN:We've had it on the web site now for about a month, and we've heard about automated phone calls that people have gotten that they think are questionable, and we've heard about some direct mail. What's important though is the coming month between now and the election because most of these misleading messages, these negative messages -- potentially racist or the other things you've listed -- come at the end of the campaign because campaigns know that that's when voters are paying attention and where they're most likely to get away without anybody truth-squading.
BOB GARFIELD:I guess one of the advantages is not only to find the culprits but just to heighten the electorate's awareness of some of the techniques that are being inflicted on them. Tell me about push polls for example. Why should we citizens of a democracy fear a telephone pollster?
MARK HALPERIN: Push polls are calls that are disguised as polls, so someone'll call up and ask you a series of questions which they'll put in the guise of, you think, collecting information. In fact what they're trying to do is spread information by asking leading questions, questions laden with negative information about the opponent or positive information about the person that calls are being made for to try to send that message into the voter's brain, again disguised as a poll.
BOB GARFIELD: What are you doing with this stuff once you collect it? How are you getting the news out to the public at large?
MARK HALPERIN:We don't obviously want to just take tips from people without trying to verify them, and, and verifying them we're asking people to as much as they can to collect these things -- e-mail us or fax us the flyer or the e-mail that they get or in states where it's legal record the telephone call, and then we do some reporting. Old-fashioned reporting, trying to determine based on the information contained in the message of the person we think sent it or try to figure out who sent it; call them; ask them if they stand by the message; ask them if they're affiliated with the campaign and talk to the person who's the target of the campaign. Then we put them on ABCNews.com in a daily publication we do called The Note.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's say this really takes off. It seems that it's inevitable that campaigns will start pulling quite elaborate dirty tricks with the aim of getting what is apparently-- nasty or unfair campaign material from one candidate in The Note to bring shame to him when in fact it was generated by dirty tricksters from, from the opposing campaign.
MARK HALPERIN: Ah-ha! We anticipated that possibility, and again it's just going to require us doing reporting. We're not putting these things on ABCNews.com unchecked out.
BOB GARFIELD:And not to be excessively cynical, because I, I believe you're doing God's work here, I, I also suspect that ultimately it will just have no effect whatsoever and that you're going to in--in--invest a lot of time and resources trying to contribute to a more civil and honest political process but ultimately to no effect whatsoever.
MARK HALPERIN: I tend to be someone who thinks you gotta just do what you can do, and if we can prove to people that it's possible to fairly, quickly, accurately and cheaply analyze political speech with the help of citizens, I think it's worth trying, and again -- I don't see much of a down side, although I agree with you that this is a big problem and we're spitting in a giant ocean here, but I'd rather, I'd rather put some spit out there and see what happens than do nothing at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well! Mark Halperin, thanks very much.
MARK HALPERIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Halperin is political director of ABC News and co-author of The Note on ABCNews.com.
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