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Politicians keep pushing some claims despite what fact checks say

By running TV ads that recycled and repeated claims that journalists had previously found false, Kentucky Democrat Alison Grimes and the Republican Governors Association were demonstrating another tactic political organizations use to respond to fact-checkers: sticking to their guns.

As one Democratic consultant put it, “We’re not going to let fact-checkers write our ads anymore.”

In some cases that approach may reflect a political sense that an adverse fact-check, especially by an out-of-market national news outlet, may have only so much effect on the parts of the electorate that matter most. That calculation is the flip side of Republican pollster Neil Newhouse’s observation that a media fact-check “doesn’t mean a damn thing” unless an opponent turns it into a TV ad that repeats the ruling often enough to seep in. But it also can reflect a political team’s belief that the fact-checkers “are sometimes wrong,” as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid once put it.1

On that, Reid and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz may have found a rare point of agreement. Of the 35 senators and representatives who spoke about fact-checking during speeches and debates in Congress, the Texan was one of only three lawmakers in 2013 and 2014 who directly questioned a fact-checker’s findings. In his 2013 remarks, Cruz described his run-in with an “ostensibly neutral reporter at a mainstream publication.” He rejected the reporting by “our friends at the Washington Post in their so-called ‘fact check,'” which had challenged his analysis of an immigration measure that was before the Senate. Cruz said the Post had “compliantly” repeated the arguments made by the legislation’s supporters, whose positions he found “on their face, singularly unpersuasive.”2

Some of the most notable “stand your ground” moments came during the 2012 presidential campaign, when, for instance, Republican Mitt Romney stuck with attacks on Obama’s international “apology tour” all the way through his general election debates with the president. That despite 2½ years of fact-checking, in which the claim was consistently rejected by PolitiFact (“False” and later “Pants on Fire”), the Washington Post (four Pinocchios) and FactCheck.org (“Nowhere did we see that the president ‘apologized’” for America”).3

Referring to those findings, Obama directly challenged his opponent on the issue when Romney raised the point again in their third and final debate. “This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign,” Obama said. “And every fact-checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”4

Romney mounted an extended defense of his claim, but fact-checkers weren’t swayed in their post-debate reviews.5 That the Republican nominee would stick with this line of attack anyway, despite all the fact checks, was understandable, since the premise was the basis of his 2010 book and political manifesto, No Apologies. It also was an argument that rang true with many conservatives, some of whom made similar arguments also cited in some of the fact-checking reports.

The same was the case for the president, whose campaign forcefully defended its attacks on Romney’s role and responsibilities for the business practices of Bain Capital, the Boston investment firm he co-founded in 1984. Here again, the campaign saw its position as core to its strategic argument that “the middle class had been pummeled,” as senior Obama adviser David Axelrod explained at a post-election conference with top officials from both campaigns and parties at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “It wasn’t just a tactic,” he said. “It was a reflection of an attitude.”6

At the Harvard conference, Axelrod and and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter described how the Obama team had their eye on the Bain issue early on, with Cutter organizing media events to stoke interest even before it was clear Romney would win his party’s nomination. Axelrod said they also watched anxiously when Romney’s Republican primary opponents began to use Romney’s Bain experience in their campaigns, worrying that some of those attacks were “potentially going overboard” and “would spoil the issue moving forward.”7

Given the deep investment in preserving the Bain argument, it fell to Cutter to defend the Obama campaign’s attacks when fact-checkers began to challenge the details.8 An example of the intensity of that defense came in the form of a six-page letter she sent to the top editors at FactCheck.org in July. The letter was a response to the site’s lengthy analysis of a series of back-to-back Obama ads that focused on Romney’s role at Bain and his responsibility for its investments in companies the ads said sent U.S. jobs overseas.

FactCheck.org founder Brooks Jackson said he and his colleagues first heard about Cutter’s letter “when other reporters called us about it.” Circulating the letter to other journalists appeared to be a way for the campaign to respond to questions about FactCheck.org’s findings, and perhaps discourage reporters from referring to a fact-check the campaign was actively contesting. But Obama campaign officials asked about their process for this report did not respond to requests for interviews or said they could not discuss the matter, except to say the campaign and the journalists saw the facts differently. “We just had very different sets of opinions,” one key aide said. “We really felt we were right.”

Added another campaign adviser, “You just decide the fact-checker is wrong.”

Cutter’s letter to FactCheck.org cited excerpts from news articles and various legal filings it said showed Romney was more involved in Bain than he acknowledged after he said he left his management role with the company to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. 9 But the editors at FactCheck.org were not swayed.

“It was total bullshit,” Jackson said.

The following day, FactCheck.org published a follow-up story that linked to the campaign’s response standing by its conclusions about the Obama ad blitz. Jackson and his colleagues wrote that they found “the Obama campaign’s evidence to be weak or non-existent” and rejected Cutter’s request for corrections. “In a nutshell,” they said, “the Obama campaign is all wet on this point.”10

Other fact-checkers were reaching similar conclusions about the Bain issue. But over the following weeks, additional documents and accounts, some circulated by the campaigns and some dug up by reporters, led to even more fact-checking. In the end, the back-and-forth proved to be more confusing than clarifying — “a series of cul-de-sacs and rabbit-holes,” as Greg Marx put it in the Columbia Journalism Review.11

In late July, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler published a summary of 11 columns he had written on Romney and Bain since the start of the year, as well as his analysis of some of the conflicting claims and reporting on the matter. “So we are at an impasse,” he wrote. “Because of the ambiguity, there is considerable room for interpretation of known facts.”12

And that ambiguity was enough for the Obama campaign to stand its ground.

  1. Congressional Record, Feb. 26, 2014
  2. Congressional Record, June 25, 2013; Glenn Kessler, “Ted Cruz’s errant tweet that employers would have a ‘huge incentive’ to hire newly legalized workers,” Washington Post, June 21, 2013
  3. Angie Drobnic Holan, “Obama’s remarks never a true ‘apology,'” PolitiFact, March 15, 2010; Angie Drobnic Holan and Katie Sanders “Mitt Romney says Barack Obama began his presidency ‘with an apology tour,'” PolitiFact, Oct. 17, 2012; Glenn Kesler, “Obama’s ‘Apology Tour,'” Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2011; Robert Farley, “Romney’s Sorry “Apology’ Dig,” FactCheck.org, Aug. 31, 2012
  4. http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-22-2012-the-third-obama-romney-presidential-debate
  5. Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Ben Finley, “False Claims in Final Debate,” FactCheck.org, October 23, 2012
  6. Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2012 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in partnership with The Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: 2013), Kindle edition, Loc 2344 of 5977.
  7. Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2012 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in partnership with The Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: 2013), Kindle edition, Loc 2320, 2326, 2327 of 5977.
  8. Dan Balz, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the future of elections in America (New York: Penguin Books, 2013-14), Kindle Edition, Loc 4892 of 8638.
  9. Copy of Stephanie Cutter’s July 1, 2012, letter to FactCheck.org
  10. Brooks Jackson and Robert Farley, with Eugene Kiely, “FactCheck to Obama Camp: Your Complaint is All Wet,” FactCheck.org, July 2, 2012
  11. Greg Marx, “The real question about Romney’s Bain career,” Columbia Journalism Review, July 23, 2012
  12. Glenn Kessler, “Mitt Romney and Bain: a Fact Checker collection,” Washington Post, July 20, 2012

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