In this hotly contested election season, both major parties are accusing one another of distorting the truth. Both quote fact-checking operations in their ads. And both claim the fact-checkers are biased when they disagree with the findings. How can we as voters get at the truth?
First, it is important to know who is behind a political message. Some ads are sponsored by the candidates’ own campaigns, while others are run by independent groups. These “third party” groups are not allowed to coordinate with the candidate campaigns, and they claim their ads are about issues, not candidates. The League of Women Voters believes there should be legislation requiring disclosure of the funders behind these ads. In the meantime, voters must be skeptical of anonymous messages.
Here are a few things you can do to sort out the truth about the candidates:
1. Turn off the television or use the mute button on your remote.
2. If you do watch an ad, stay with it to find out if the candidate herself approved the message or if it was sponsored by a third-party interest.
3. Attend a candidate forum sponsored by your local League of Women Voters or another nonpartisan organization, so you can hear the candidates speak without a script. Candidate forums are often recorded for later viewing on a public television channel or the Wisconsin Eye website (www.wiseye.org).
4. Seek information from reliable nonpartisan sources. Wisconsinvote.org and Wisconsin Eye’s Campaign 2012 provide unbiased information, candidate interviews and links to campaign websites.
6. Seek a mix of mainstream and new media to get different perspectives.
7. Consult the candidates’ own websites, as well as the political party platforms. The platforms are posted on The American Presidency Project’s website:http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/platforms.php.
Finally, we as voters can demand the truth. Broadcasters are required to run most ads submitted by federal candidates, but we can reasonably ask them to demand veracity from the third-party ads. While many ads come from out-of-state interests, the stations that broadcast them are members of our community. It is undoubtedly difficult for the stations to turn away advertisers, but they do sometimes reject content they view as deceptive. For example, Madison’s WMTV/Channel 15 recently refused to run a third-party ad showing a Paul Ryan look-alike pushing an older woman in a wheelchair off a cliff. In many cases stations can avoid losing the revenue by simply request modifications from the advertisers. But they may need some pressure from their viewers.
On the Annenberg Center’s Flackcheck.org website, you can easily send an email to stations in your area asking them to insist on accuracy in third-party ads and to make fact-checking a regular feature of their news programming.
We as voters deserve nothing short of the truth, and we should insist upon it.
Andrea Kaminski is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for informed and active participation in government. There are 16 local Leagues in Wisconsin.