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How Allen's and Robb's ads twist the truth

All's Fair in Political War


If television ads in Virginia's Senate race were selling Pepsi instead of politicians, many could be yanked from the airwaves, and the advertisers hauled into court faster than you could sing, "Joy of Cola."

Sure, the ads are factually correct.

But they often use facts to create misleading impressions.

Here's one: Pick seven "no" votes the opponent cast on a popular issue such as welfare reform or protecting Social Security and use them to suggest that he opposes both efforts. Don't mention that he cast numerous "yes" votes on his party's measures.

"In commercial advertising, we would consider those kinds of claims to be deceptive by implication," says David Stewart, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California.

Even if the facts and statements are accurate, he says, "if you leave an impression that's false, it's still illegal."

Not so in politics, where the bar is much lower.

An analysis of 16 campaign issue ads aired from mid-August in the Virginia Senate race shows that 11 contain deceptive claims. Of those, six were Republican ads, four were Democratic ads and one was an anti-George Allen radio ad by the Sierra Club.

The Republicans have used the "seven votes" claim on three issues in five ads. One of the most recent ads claims Robb "voted seven times against reforming welfare."

This makes it sound as if Robb wanted to keep the old welfare system. He didn't. He supported the welfare-reform bill that became law in 1996.

But in addition to supporting Democratic and bipartisan welfare-reform measures, he also opposed several tough Republican bills and amendments, and that's all it takes to make this advertising claim factually correct.

The ad was on much firmer ground when it asserted that Robb hadn't done anything to reform welfare as Virginia's governor, because, in fact, he had done very little.

Ed Matricardi, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, says the ad's portrayal was fair, though he concedes that fairness is "in the eye of the beholder.

… We can have disagreements about what the voting record means."

Robb voted for weaker welfare-reform measures at the expense of tough ones, he says, so "for us to say he has a bad voting record on those is totally fair."

Democrats used a variation on this tactic once themselves, in defense against Republican ads about Robb voting "to continue the marriage tax penalty."

A Democratic ad countered, "George Allen … says Chuck Robb is against ending the marriage penalty. Not true. Robb voted six times to end the tax."

That's true, but Robb also voted against Republican measures to end it, including the measure recently vetoed by President Clinton. The other misleading Democratic claim, contained in three ads so far, is that Allen vetoed class-size reduction in 1994. He did, but not because he opposed smaller classes.

The General Assembly had passed a bill requiring class-size reduction, but didn't put money in the budget to help local schools pay for it. Allen vetoed it, calling it an unfunded mandate. In 1995, he signed a budget that increased funding for voluntary class-size reduction.

Robb spokesman Mo Elleithee says he thinks the claim is fair, adding, "The only reason it was unfunded (in 1994) was because he didn't fund it."

The Sierra Club's misleading claim is in an ad being aired on urban contemporary radio stations. It says Allen sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "to stop the cleanup of air pollution and smog."

It sounds like Allen wanted to end the cleanup altogether, but the suit was about stopping the government from forcing its stricter environmental regulations on Virginia.

Why can political ads get away with being "deceptive by implication" when advertisements for commercial products or services can't?

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has given political speech the broadest possible protection under the First Amendment.

Rod Smolla, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Richmond, says campaigns can't be held legally accountable for what's in their ads unless they knowingly make false statements.

"The rationale for this rule is that we trust the marketplace to be the main corrective," Smolla says.

"The other side has the opportunity to make counterstatements, or we hope that enterprising reporters will analyze the ads and tell the public what is fair or unfair."

In commercial advertising, there are enforcement mechanisms. Consumers recently won a $16 million settlement from Publishers Clearinghouse because its promotional materials implied that contestants could increase their chances of winning prizes in a random drawing by making more purchases.

"The sad part," Smolla says, "is that political campaigns know the probability that anyone will hold them to task is very low. It's very rare that any real price is paid."

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who has been watching elections for more than 30 years, says the situation is not sad at all.

"Advertising has the obligation only to be partly accurate — that is, the part reflecting the candidate paying for the ad," he says.

"There are a lot of people around who think that campaigns ought to be Sunday afternoon tea parties, or games of tiddlywinks, and that is not politics," he says.

"It's a rough contact sport, and to survive in politics, you have to be able to take a fair hit," he says. "These are fair hits. They're not complete hits. They don't tell the whole story. That's the responsibility of the press and the opposition."

The opposition has cried foul. Attorneys for the Robb campaign sent letters to TV station managers three weeks ago asking them to pull the Republican ad exhorting Robb to "tell the truth" about education spending. None did.

And last month, the Allen campaign circulated a letter from former President George Bush in which he criticized Robb's claim to have voted with his administration on a majority of issues. "He voted far more with the liberal Democrat leadership in the Senate than with me," Bush complained.

Robb voted with the Bush administration 57 percent of the time. He supported Clinton 86 percent of the time.

Where does this leave the public?

While 39 percent of Virginians believe that political ads help voters make informed choices, 59 percent do not, according to a statewide poll conducted in late August and early September, when the ad war had just begun.

"Even the most careful watcher is going to have a really difficult time differentiating A from B," says Bill Wood, executive director of the University of Virginia's Thomas C. Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, which is studying this year's ad campaign. "Who's going to put in the hours to research that?"

— Landmark News Services

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