With the 2012 campaign season moving from primary to election mode, Bill invites back to his studio master media decoder Kathleen Hall Jamieson for a closer look at the role misinformation will play in the Obama vs. Romney TV ad slugfest. Jamieson, who runs the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, including the sites FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org, discusses the sharp increase in deceptive advertising in the 2012 race, and equally-alarming new obstacles to campaign ad transparency.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. The presidential campaign is off and running; off and running from one fundraiser to another. President Obama has already set a record: the "Financial Times" reports almost 200 events at which he’s rattled the tin cup, more than his four predecessors combined. He’s ahead overall – with $104 million the last time papers were filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s ten times more than what Mitt Romney’s campaign had in the bank.
But Romney is the darling of the super PACs: Pro-Romney PACs have collected ten times as much from the friendly rich who prefer to give anonymously. And even when he’s the draw, you don’t see much of the candidate: At a New Jersey fundraiser the other day, Mitt Romney vacuumed up $400,000 in one hour at a private home while the press was safely cordoned off by police. No peeking allowed.
But while only a few people will actually see the candidates up close between now and November, we will be seeing the commercials that all that money is buying. They’re coming at us now fast and furious:
MITT ROMNEY: I balanced the budget every single year.
NARRATOR #1: You don’t quit and neither does he.
NARRATOR #2: Job creation numbers fall for the third straight month.
BILL MOYERS: But don’t despair. You don’t have to watch all of them. Because we have Kathleen Hall Jamieson for that. Our master media decoder and her vigilant team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center scarcely miss a bobble along the political beat. At the websites FactCheck.org and the new FlackCheck.org, their job is to critique, watch, analyze and share what they find out.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you for being with me.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: One of the big stories this week was the defeat, in the Republican primary, of Senator Richard Lugar after 36 years in the Senate. And he attributes his defeat, in the statement he made after his concession, to the determination of conservatives and right wingers to bring him down. And he says it was because of his vote for the TARP program, for government support of the auto industry, for the START treaty, and for the confirmation of two of Obama's nominees to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor and Kagan.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We have now lost an individual who was willing to do what he thought was right even when that meant working across the aisle. He's a conservative. He wasn't a moderate by most definitions. And as he notes in his statement, during the Reagan period, he was the reliable Reagan supporter. You'd call him a Reagan conservative now, which tells you how far the party has moved.
By losing him in the Senate, what we've lost is a person who has dedicated much of his life to nuclear non-proliferation, to try to make sure that those dangerous weapons don't get in the wrong hands and that we have fewer of them overall. He worked with Barack Obama on that. And the Obama campaign in 2008 featured that in ads.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The single most important national security threat that we face is nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. What I did was reach out to Senator Dick Lugar, a Republican, to help lock down loose nuclear weapons.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That fact was used against Senator Lugar, the fact that he worked with someone across the aisle.
BILL MOYERS: So what does this mean for the polarization that already has caused such disaffection among the American people? What does it mean for solving-- resolving something like nuclear proliferation?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It means that if you're going to get action, you're going to have to have both parts of Congress and the presidency controlled by the same party because you're always, under this set of assumptions, going to produce gridlock otherwise. And you're going to condemn anyone who tries to break that gridlock by reaching across the aisle in order to find a point of common ground. Essentially, Senator Lugar was defeated because of his efforts to find principled common ground on issues that he thought were important.
BILL MOYERS: Many people I respect, including you, say that this period between the election in November and the inauguration of either President Obama again in January or President Mitt Romney is a very dangerous period because the Bush tax cuts expire. The deficit has to be dealt with. There are other issues that cannot wait any longer and that there's going to be a roadblock in that period of time unless, somehow, they do find the Richard Lugars. Where are they going to come from?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I don't know. But we're facing what some have characterized as a fiscal cliff. This country has got to find a way to grapple with these issues at a time in which our system has proven to be dysfunctional because of the driving force of polarization.
BILL MOYERS: So what do people watching, regular voters out there, ordinary citizens who don't have much time for politics, what do they-- what should they be doing between now and then?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: First, we have to do everything that we can as a journalistic and academic community to focus this election on things that matter and to focus on issue distinctions between candidates that can actually translate into governance. There is a piece that the Obama campaign put up this last week that was called "Life of Julia" that projects from the age of three through 67 how Julia would be affected by various government programs that are actually already in effect.
BILL MOYERS: Frame Julia for us. What Julia are you talking about?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Julia is a two-dimensional figure created on a slideshow by the Obama administration as a means of showing what government currently provides under the Obama administration. And so Julia at three has Head Start.
And as she ages, she benefits from the fact that she gets to stay on her parents' insurance thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
When Julia faces potential pay discrimination, she's protected by the Ledbetter Act, the first act signed by President Obama.
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Which means that she can file a discrimination suit if she is not getting comparable pay to a man who's doing the same kind of job. And she doesn't have an odd notification period requirement, meaning you could be discriminated against, not know it, and as a result lose your right to sue.
When she reaches Medicare and Social Security age, she's able to retire. And so it's an attempt by the Obama administration to say what does government currently do for you and with you?
And in the process, they're making some assumptions that are suspect assumptions. The Republicans respond by saying that's the nanny state and that's the--
BILL MOYERS: Culture of dependence.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Culture of dependency. And they lay up their alternative about what they think would happen if the Republican scenarios played out, better job growth, et cetera, et cetera. The Libertarians come in and do something that's very interesting. They basically say both of you are part of the nanny state, you Republicans and you Democrats. And we marginalize Libertarians a lot. The Libertarian critique is actually an important critique.
One of the things the Libertarian take on Julia says is her father is, you know, smoking marijuana. He gets arrested and put away. We're still fighting two wars we're not paying for. There basically is this other third critique out there that looks at the long term and says we can't sustain these things.
That's what makes the Julia narrative, for me, very valuable. It casts the long term as our perspective, not the short term. And if you look literally at what the Obama tracking of Julia's life in the slideshow does, it says this is what government currently does. How much of it are you ready to give up if we can't afford to sustain it? That's my reading on Julia.
The Obama people want me to read that and say, "Vote for Obama, you get to keep it." Vote for Obama, you don't get to keep some of it because its economic assumptions are not consistent with what we know the real world is. But I like the fact that we're asking the question: how do we afford this level of government if we want to keep it? Do we want to keep it? How are we going to pay for it? If we're going to cut, where are we going to cut? Those are key questions. And that's what this election should be about.
BILL MOYERS: But do you hear or see Romney and Obama addressing these tough choices--
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No.
BILL MOYERS: --in ways that reassure you?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No. And if we have an election campaign in which they don't and they act responsibly, we're going to disconnect campaigning from governance. And when we have a campaign in which they don't, it's less likely that they will. And as a result, we run the risk that we are actually going to hurt the country dramatically because the polarization is making it much, much more difficult for people to find the common ground that they need.
When Speaker Boehner and President Obama came as close as they did to a grand bargain, we were seeing the possibility that government could work. When on each side the people from the left and the right said, "No, you can't give that," "no, you can't give that," we saw the problems of polarization. The leadership impulses of the speaker and the president were the right impulses. How do we draw them forward in order to get the right decisions for the country in an environment in which we cannot continue to do what we're doing?
BILL MOYERS: I'm going to get a lot of emails from my viewers saying, "Please don't have that woman again."
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I know.
BILL MOYERS: "She's making me think too much. She makes my head heart," because these are tough choices.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They're extremely tough choices. And we can't afford not to make them because if we don't make them the alternative is unsustainable for the country. And the people who say, "Well, we're going to find a way to cut," should be explaining why that's enough.
And we've had an interesting moment in which the-- Governor Romney was caught on a microphone in which he said, "Well, we'll cut housing. We'll cut education." Well, I'd like to see him say that in public and explain why. I'd like to see both sides say, "With Social Security here's what we should do." I'd like to see them debate Simpson-Bowles.
BILL MOYERS: That's the commission that recommended compromise on both spending and taxes.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and had distinguished individuals from both political parties. It is-- it makes tough recommendations. And I would like to see in the absence of the candidates having the courage to take the position, someone lay out the case for the Simpson-Bowles alternative so the public understands what it is so that we begin to build some consensus about what the trade-offs look like, what the costs are going to be, and what we need to do to sustain this country for future generations.
BILL MOYERS: But how do we do that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think we do it by having the media feature it intensely as an alternative and explain why it is important.
That's what we need to do in the presidential debates. We're going to have them. When they don't answer the question, the next person up should forgo his or her question and ask the question again. And if the entire debate simply has to ask the question then let's ask, what about Simpson-Bowles don't you like, Mr. President? You know, Governor Romney? What about it do you like? Are you ready to advance-- to say that we should move the Social Security age to 70 in some kind of a phased-in structure?
Should we be doing means testing in some ways? What are your alternatives? When you say you're going to reform the tax code, is that an excuse for saying you're going to do nothing? How much money can you get out of the reforms that you were offering? And what are you going to eliminate and what are you going to cut? Right now we're playing this game. Right now you've got the Ryan budget proposal.
BILL MOYERS: Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Uh-huh. And to his credit, there is a proposal there. The first thing the Democrats did a response was to say, "Ha, we're going to assume he's cutting everything across the board." So they started pushing on the assumption that this good thing is going to be cut. This good thing, this good thing by “X” percent.
Congressman Ryan responds, "No, I'm going to get rid of some things entirely, and I'm going to preserve some things entirely. And I'm going to cut some things." That's actually the beginning of a productive exchange. Now the question is what for both sides? And let's get the public on board to accept that there's some things we take for granted now we're not going to have. There's some costs we're not now paying that we're going to have to pay. It's necessary to preserve our country.
BILL MOYERS: I understand that. But I don't know how realistically we make it happen unless there's perhaps a popular movement to require Romney and Obama to meet every week for six weeks before the election on debate terms, not of the parties' choosing, but of some independent group like we used to have with the League of Women Voters, that requires tests, probe, expects and demands that they answer these questions.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the debate structure is the possible-- is the place where we've got the possibility of the solution. I would like to see a proposal that Harvard floated a number of years ago, that we devote Sunday nights, from the beginning of the general election period through the election, to intensive discussions with presidential candidates about the serious issues of the day.
I think you'd find an attentive audience for that. And I think the person who's elected would find that he was better able to govern if the public had had that opportunity. The public isn't stupid. The public actually is smart in some important ways.
But it needs help in getting up to speed.
BILL MOYERS: Are we close to de-legitimizing the American political system? Is it possible we could reach a point in our political system where it collapses of its own absurdity?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We're close right now to having a campaign run on attack and irrelevant arguments that are highly deceptive and, as a result, make it extremely difficult to solve the problems facing the country, which is what all the concern about money and politics is well justified and why we ought to worry about trying to vigilantly hold the super PACs and the third-party advertisers accountable.
Now, what are the consequences of high level of attack? You don't have a reason to vote for someone. You're only being told why to vote against. Hence, no projection of what the alternatives are and no understanding of the trade-offs in government. And the danger is, with all of this unaccountable third-party money, that we're going to have high levels--
BILL MOYERS: You mean super PAC money, special interest money.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Political party money, special interest money as well as super PAC money. We're going to have high level of attack; hence, no relevance to governance and votes against. And that we're going to have high level of deception; hence, people who feel betrayed once they see actual governance or who vote against a candidate they might otherwise support.
We have got to worry about this as an issue. And as a result, trying to ensure that people understand the facts under the ad's critical. Important that the ads not distract us from the central issues. All of this is a journalistic function. And important that, when there is deception, the candidate carries the burden.
If you'll remember 2000, Al Gore was hurt as a result of the way in which he campaigned against Bill Bradley. He made some claims that were considered illegitimate by those who were tracking the campaign. He carried that penalty forward. And the Bush campaign capitalized on it, in some ways, illegitimately to attack him in the general election.
What happens when a super PAC deceives? The pro-Romney super PAC not only outspent the pro-Santorum and pro-Gingrich super PACs, it outspent them 20 to one in deceptive dollars. Those are dollars spent on ads that were deceiving. So what happens when that super PAC carries all that deception? Do we say about Governor Romney he deceived and, as a result, he carries a penalty? No, we don't. And as a result, there's no penalty structure put in place to create a structure that dampens down the deception. BILL MOYERS: Since we last talked, the Wesleyan Media Project, I'm sure you're familiar with that, has given us some grim facts about how the campaign advertising dollars are being spent. First, it says, this campaign is shaping up to be an overwhelmingly negative one, much more negative than 2008. So far, says the Wesleyan Project, 70 percent of the ads are negative. Talk to me about that.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What we do know this year is that we've had a high level of attack and that we've had a high level of deception. And I separate the two because you can have deception in ads that make the case for a candidate that aren't simply ads that attack. And what happens when you have a high level of attacks and a high level of deception is that you disassociate campaigning from governance. And you minimize the likelihood that the candidate who is elected has made a case for a presidency that he can actually act on and mobilize the American people on behalf of.
BILL MOYERS: So negative ads are alright if they’re true, right?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I don't like to use the word "negative" because it conflates legitimate and illegitimate attack and because negative to most people means duplicitous. It means you're not looking at the ads that make the case for a candidate that may be deceptive.
But the-- one of the problems with high levels of attacks is that it doesn't give you a basis to vote for a candidate. One of the advantages of attack at some level is it creates legitimate issue distinctions. When it's fair and accurate in relevance to governance, attack is what makes politics work.
I'm not going to tell you bad things about me when I'm running. You're going to tell voters things that are accurate if you're running a good honorable campaign to create a legitimate issue distinction. Sometimes candidates attack others for things they've actually done themselves.
And also you're going to make a case that has-- translates into governance so it gives people some reason to vote for you and against me. Those contrast ads are actually the strongest form of advertising we have because they tell you on an issue where there's a distinction where I stand, where you stand. And if that relates to a real decision in governance, that helps people vote.
BILL MOYERS: What's your response to these numbers? Outside groups including super PACs have sponsored almost 60 percent of the ads aired compared with three percent! Three percent of the ads in 2008. One group alone, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, has aired nearly 17,000 spots mostly against Obama.
And all together there have been 33,420 anti-Obama pro-Republican spots run compared to 25,516 anti-Republican, pro-Obama spots. What do you make of that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, first, third-party advertising, that's non-candidate advertising, has historically been more attack driven and more deceptive. And that's true this year as well. Secondly, when there are imbalances in money tied to messages, the side with the higher dollar amount of messaging has the advantage.
We showed this in 2008, interestingly, when the advantage was with the Obama campaign, which in some media markets outspent John McCain four to one. We documented the effect of that difference in the presence of controlling everything else that might have affected voters. And we showed a difference in vote choice based on the amount of money-- differential in the amount of money spent by the two campaigns.
And the biggest problem occurs when there's a differential in spending and a high level of deception tied to a high level attack because now you have the worst possible consequences. The whole electoral environment becomes more attack driven with deceptive content that might mislead voters into voting against a candidate they might otherwise support.
And it, by divorcing campaigning from governance, it invites cynicism about our political process. Why, after all, if when you're told all these things that are deceptive and then you vote and you don't as a result see forecast governance, should you vote the next time? And that's the theory behind the notion that maybe it does demobilize. There is some evidence of that.
BILL MOYERS: So if I had more money than you and I spend more of that money on negative ads and I run more negative ads than you, I have the advantage?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Assuming that you've got a comparably effective message. Yes, redundancy is correlated to retention.
BILL MOYERS: How do beleaguered, busy, besieged voters sort out the BS from the truth? I mean, I brought with me two ads I want to play side by side. One is from Americans for Prosperity, funded by in part by the super-rich Koch brothers. And it attacks President Obama's record on energy.
The other which I’ll play right after is an almost instant rebuttal from the Obama side. And it features someone most people have never seen, the deputy campaign manager for Obama's reelection. So let me play these two ads and then we'll talk about them.
NARRATOR #3: Washington promised to create American jobs if we passed their stimulus. But that’s not what happened.
Fact: Billions of tax payer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries. The Obama administration admitted the truth that $2.3 billion of tax credits went overseas. While millions of Americans can’t find a job. $1.2 billion to a solar company that’s building a plant in Mexico.
Half a billion to an electric car company that created hundreds of jobs in Finland. And tens of millions of dollars to build traffic lights in China. President Obama wasted $34 billion on risky investments. The result: failure! American tax payers are paying to send their own jobs to foreign countries. Tell President Obama: American tax dollars should help American taxpayers.
BILL MOYERS: And now here is the almost the almost instant rebuttal.
STEPHANIE CUTTER: Hi, I’m Stephanie Cutter. I’m the Deputy Campaign Manager here at Obama for America, and I wanted to arm you with the facts about the latest attack from Big Oil. You may have heard of the Koch brothers. They’re secretive oil billionaires bankrolling Republican campaigns and now they’re backing Mitt Romney. Pretty simple reason for this, President Obama would take away billions of dollars in unnecessary oil tax breaks – Mitt Romney would protect them.
So now they’re spending six million dollars on an ad that is so blatantly false the Washington Post said they have no shame.
Let’s get the facts out because it’s important that you guys know the truth. President Obama has helped create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs. Projects in all 50 states. And the way these oil billionaires and their front group completely ignore the truth is breathtaking.
Let’s take some crazy examples from their attack ad. They claim the administration gave money to build electric cars in Finland. No, the Department of Energy’s funding was specifically for U.S. jobs at U.S. facilities. Sure enough the company is employing 700 workers in California and their planning to build a plant in Delaware.
Okay, another ridiculous claim: they said we sent money to China to build traffic lights. That’s wrong again. Those traffic lights were assembled here, in this country, and helped expand our light manufacturing industry in this country.
They said we gave money to a company building solar plants in Mexico. Nope. Wrong again. Our money is going to a solar plant here in America with American workers.
These guys are going to say whatever it takes to tear down the President. They will literally say anything. They oppose expanding clean energy. They oppose higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. So we’re going to call their BS when we see it. And we need your help to call them on it too and to set the record straight.
So share this, Tweet it, Facebook it. I keep hearing about Tumblr and whatever that is, please use that too. And thank you, for all of your help.
BILL MOYERS: Two totally different kind of ads. One's slick, highly produced, all that music and sound bites and the drama of it. The other one just straightforward, some young woman talking into camera. How do you evaluate the techniques there?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, first, the second is a web video and it's consistent with the ways in which the Obama campaign talked to supporters in 2008. Very straightforward. Someone comes on camera and says, "Here's the way we see the facts."
The produced, the highly visual, very evocative produced content is almost always more effective because it's more memorable. The visuals, the music, and the words underscore each other. Under both of these, however, are problematic claims. And so if you say, "I really like Stephanie Cutter. She seems really credible. I guess I'm going to believe her," or, "I really buy into all this fancy produced content in the third-party ad," you've made a mistake.
What you need to ask in both is what are the patterns of deception and how can I detect them? So let me give you some quick guides. The Koch brothers aren't big oil. The Koch brothers are little oil. They run all sorts of things, but the percent of their income that comes from oil, small compared to big oil.
She's calling them big oil because you're afraid of big oil. Big oil is negatively cast. And it's much easier to say bad thing, big oil and tie it to Koch brothers than to say highly diversified, lots of things that they run, Koch brothers. So first move, when somebody uses a single scary something and attacks should ask is that right? And what does that mean? On the other side, when people make categorical claims, do you think it's really plausible? So no jobs created by the stimulus? That's not plausible. Everything about economic theory would say it must have done something.
Well, the CBO, Congressional Budget Office, says that the stimulus created or saved 1.2 to 3.3 million jobs. That's not a small number. So test the plausibility. When people make categorical claims, they're usually false. Now, I notice I didn't say always false because that would be a categorical claim.
Then when visuals pop up on the screen, as you see words or you hear words, ask whether the visual is driving a false inference. You saw Solyndra pop up on the screen. Solyndra has failed. You heard 34 billion and the word "failure." Now, you're not-- you're processing rapidly. It's going like this in the ad. You're not likely to say 'cause you know Solyndra was a failure. That was Solyndra 34 billion? Was everything else 34 billion a failure? When you see a visual that's strong and you associate it with something that is accurate, ask whether the rest of what you're processing is coming along is misleading you.
Of the rest of that money, Solyndra and a group, I think it's called Beacon Power, are the two that have failed. We may, as a country, get back some money from them in bankruptcy. But let's assume that we don't, we lose all of those loan guarantees. If we do, it's two percent of the money that's been spent.
But that piece is not going to let you ask that because it's moving so rapidly. You've already processed the whole thing has failed because Solyndra is so visible and available. And we've heard about it in news. And it is legitimately a failure for the Obama administration. And we tend to over-generalize. So what's the bottom line with this? And there's one more, by the way. Whenever somebody says "jobs overseas," stop. We're in a global economy.
It's virtually impossible to spend a large amount of money on something major and not have something that's going overseas. We've got things that are plants in the United States that are owned by people overseas. We've got people in the United States who own things but the plant is overseas. And in many of the big products that we assemble, automobiles, you've got parts coming from all over.
So did the jobs all go overseas? Or in a global economy would some of it have gone overseas and some of it come here? Now, once you make that inference, you can tell why the Democratic response and the ad are both telling you a partial truth. Some of that money did create jobs overseas, but some of that money created jobs here. The ad only tells you half. The Democratic response only tells you half. But since you know the economy is global, you know there is some truth in both.
BILL MOYERS Is it true, by the way, that fact checkers forced Mitt Romney to back away from his claim that he had net-net increased jobs by 100,000 while he was running Bain Capital?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And when people say fact checking doesn't matter, here's a case study. Fact checking often hits a brick wall. That is the campaigns believe that they can restate so often with evocative ads that they override it. But when it is persistent and when you have debates to personally hold a candidate accountable and when the other candidates are doing it as well, it can succeed. And that's how the process is supposed to work.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, we'll be seeing how this plays out over the next coming months. Thanks for joining me.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You're welcome.