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One thing the candidates agree on - lying

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by Greg Stone

Have you seen any political ads lately? The candidates have to take explicit credit for them now. So they close ads with a statement such as this:

"I'm George Bush (or I'm John Kerry). I approve this ad. I'm a liar and you're a fool if you believe anything I say."

Oh, you haven't heard that yet? The part about being a liar? Well that's because they don't say it. There is nothing - no law, no media, and most importantly, no voters like you - requiring them to speak the truth. If they spoke the truth they would admit their ads are loaded with untruths, distortions, and half truths.

What about the Federal Trade Commission and the Truth in Advertising Law? That applies to businesses. It's illegal for a business to lie in an ad. It is not illegal for a candidate for president of the United states - or dogcatcher, for that matter - to lie.

That may surprise you, but it's actually a good thing because it's based on a higher principle - freedom of speech - which we should and do protect. Like campaign finance laws, campaign truth-in-advertising laws are next to impossible to fashion in such a way that they don't cause as many problems as they are meant to solve. But freedom of speech then puts a tremendous burden on us - the consumers of political advertising and speeches - to sort out the truth. And the media are supposed to help us with that burden, but as near as I can tell they do relatively little serious helping. In fact, they frequently thrive on the lies, repeating them and stirring up angry debates that attract viewers and add a ton of heat to the situation, but no light.

Fortunately, there's a new, independent organization that does help. It's called "FactCheck.org" and it delivers independent analysis of political advertising - advertising done by the candidates and by organizations that support candidates - directly to your email box. (Or you can check the web site.)

For the past several months I've been following their analysis and what is depressing is how flagrant and prevalent and sophisticated the political lying has become. I'm not naive. But this election has taken my skepticism to new heights. It is special for three reasons:

1. Big bucks are fueling it - far more than in any previous campaign.

2. That money buys highly skilled professional pollsters who tell candidates what people want to hear. No one leads - they follow the cues given them by the polls and focus groups.

3. That money also buys television time and the slickest bunch of professional liars who ever hit the campaign trail. Knowing how to use images, sound bites, tone of voice and body language to your advantage is both a science and an art and these folks are masters of it.

Drop those three facts into a deeply emotional post-9/11 era, stir them with irresponsible media whose main goal is to entertain and thus make a buck, and you end up with a combination that is a tremendous threat to our democracy.

Against all of this one little group such as FactCheck.org is at best the Dutch boy holding his finger in the dike while all around him the feared flood has already swept across the country.

What is FactCheck.org? Let them explain themselves:

"We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

"The Annenberg Political Fact Check is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "

And they are doing an excellent job that's starting to catch the attention of the media. That doesn't mean they have all the answers, or are completely free of bias. But they have more answers than any other group I have encountered, and they certainly come down hard on both presidential candidates. To me, Mr. Bush is the worst president we have had in at least a century, so I wince every time I get a FactCheck email about a John Kerry ad. But it is not FactCheck that makes me wince - what makes me wince is Mr. Kerry using the exact same tactics of lies and half truths that George Bush uses.

Yeah, I can hear my Kerry-supporting friends now saying we have to be realistic - we have to fight fire with fire. Bull. The answer to the abuse of power is truth. Plain, simple, and believable truth. And I wish John Kerry would stick to it. And frankly, I probably would think he was sticking to it most of the time if I didn't have FactCheck.org to rely on.

The media - this newspaper included - could do a real public service simply by reprinting material from FactCheck.org. It's free, it's useful, and it would go a long way to giving people the kind of information they need to make reasoned judgments in the current election. But the real burden falls on you, the voter. As FactCheck.org concludes in a piece they wrote on truth in advertising laws:

"And so it goes. All this should tell voters that -- legally -- it's pretty much up to them to sort out who's lying and who's not in a political campaign. Nobody said Democracy was supposed to be easy.

"It is of course the job of news organizations to assist; that's why the First Amendment guarantees a free press as well as free speech. We at FactCheck.org try hard to help. But on election day, it's up to you."

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