The truth is out there

A tiny website is exposing the US election's black propaganda. Peter Oborne reports
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No US election has ever seen lying, mendacity and smear on the sheer scale which has dominated the 2004 campaign which ends tomorrow. Some of the deceptions have been massive: think of the mendacious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign intended to challenge John Kerry's war record.

Far from being concerned with the truth, the Republican-funded Swift Boat vets made a series of false charges against Kerry. Many stuck. On the other side, there was the catastrophe for CBS's "Sixty Minutes", duped into publishing false documents about President Bush's record in the National Guard.

These two big episodes made the news even on this side of the Atlantic. More important and corrosive, the two campaigns have waged a long, drawn-out war of attrition by falsehood. TV ads on behalf of the two candidates have systematically set out to distort the rival candidates' positions on a huge range of issues.

For many years this culture of deception, just as prevalent in Britain as the United States, has gone unchallenged. But one of the most hopeful developments of the campaign has been the emergence of FactCheck has just three operatives. But from its tiny office just off Capitol Hill, it systematically monitors all statements from the two candidates, and the advertising made on their behalf.

Stealthily, FactCheck has been reintroducing integrity into the US political process. Its site produces a regular, astringent and dry commentary on the rival campaigns. For instance, on October 18 FactCheck examines a Kerry ad claiming that "Bush has a plan to cut Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent." The FactCheck verdict is damning, and crisply delivered: "That's false. Bush has proposed no such plan, and the proposal Kerry refers to would only slow down the growth of benefits, and only for future retirees."

The previous week, however, FactCheck was equally caustic about false claims made by allies of the President. Its scathing press release summed up as follows: "New ad claims Bush inherited an economy "already in recession" and that 41 million seniors "now have access to lower cost prescriptions". Wrong on both counts."

The genius behind FactCheck is a retired journalist named Brooks Jackson, who started his career at Associated Press before moving as an investigative reporter to the Wall Street Journal, where he specialised in stories linking money and politics. In the 1990s he moved to CNN, where he pioneered "adwatch" stories debunking false claims made by rival candidates during the 1992 election.

Last year Jackson was approached by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. She suggested he start FactCheck. So Jackson hired two researchers and set to work.

"I thought we could reasonably hope to be a resource for other journalists," says Jackson, "but I never dreamed that our site would have 29,000 visits per day." That was how matters stood in September. Then, in last month's vice-presidential debate, Dick Cheney made a reference to FactCheck, calling it in aid to dispel some lurid Democratic allegations about his relationship with the construction giant Halliburton. Even though the Cheney reference was slightly botched, FactCheck was nonetheless inundated with inquiries, and its website crashed. It has been averaging more than 100,000 visits a day over the last two weeks, and is turning into something of a phenomenon.

Jackson says that his background is highly relevant. "Basically you've got to be a journalist who's been lied to a few times to do this job." He says that since there is no way that every statement made by the candidates can be checked, a sixth sense for the false and misleading is essential.

It is fascinating, and a little bit horrifying, listening to Jackson as he describes the tricks of this campaign. The "People of Color United" radio ad, purporting to come from black activists opposed to Kerry, but funded by a wealthy white Republican insurance tycoon. The misleading democrat ads accusing George Bush of making automatic weapons legal in the US. "It's disturbing to me that there is so much, er, misinformation being put out by the rival political campaigns and by their allies. Some of it is being believed, probably too much of it. That can't be a good basis for making policy going into the future," says Jackson. There have been few complaints from politicians. "When I started doing this at CNN a dozen years ago I expected to spend half my time dealing with outraged candidates and media advisers. We would put out criticism after criticism but there would be no response."

This is the worrying part: despite being exposed, politicians go on lying and cheating. Jackson says that he has concluded that the makers of the TV ads believe they need to "lie defensively" to make their point. "Politicians are incorrigible," says Jackson. "It's in their blood. They look at facts as a weapon. For them it's got to be plausible and believable. It doesn't necessarily have to be true."

Perhaps Jackson is being too gloomy. As FactCheck takes off, it deserves to gain more influence and start to shame American politicians into telling the truth. One thing is certain: a British version of FactCheck is desperately needed. I asked Jackson if he could be persuadable to come to Britain for our general election next year. But he dismisses the suggestion: "I wouldn't know my way around." If he won't rise to the challenge, somebody should.

Peter Oborne's film, 'The Dirty Race for the White House', will be shown on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight