The Michigan 'Truth Squad' Problem With Facts

An organization bold enough to call itself an objective arbiter of the truth about campaign ads should be held to a high standard. The Center for Michigan’s “Truth Squad” fails to meet this standard in a number of ways.

I’ve written before on how they sometimes get their “facts” wrong. (Despite pointing out this particular error, they have yet to respond.)

While factual errors may slip in from time to time, a “Truth Squad” ought to be more careful. But – in truth – their more frequent problem is to make judgments unjustified by and unrelated to the facts. The Truth Squad ostensibly uses a rubric for calling “foul” on technical factual problems or material factual issues, but they routinely ignore this rubric and offer judgments outside of its realm.

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For instance, they recently called “foul” on a Proposal 2 ad. By their definition, this means that the ad contains a “statement that distorts or incorrectly states a fact involving policy.” Truth Squad asserts that the advertisement “wants you to believe [attorney general] Schuette is lying about Proposal 2. It fails to proof [sic] that case — and doesn’t even really try.” It’s true that the ad did not adequately make the case that Schuette lied about Proposal 2. But lacking adequate argumentation is not the same as stating a falsehood.

A recent advertisement on Proposal 5, the supermajority voting requirement for tax bills, uses a mock newscaster to speculate that the measure could stop a future gas tax. Because the mock newscaster makes his claims sound like a real news story, the Truth Squad’s John Bebow states, “This may be the most flagrant, erroneous ad campaign of the year.”

The ad, however, gives a hypothetical scenario that can be prevented by a supermajority requirement. It’s all the more effective because gas taxes are under current discussion in the legislature. The ad is speculation — a guess about the future — not a factual assertion. Their criticism, then, falls beyond the role of a fact-checker.

Bebow could possibly mean that the ad intended to confuse people about whether the state passed a gas tax. If proponents were intentionally confusing people about a gas tax, then this deception could be offensive, even if it’s just speculation. Confusion on this point, however, would be counter to the purpose of the ad, which is to get people to vote for the proposal. It seems doubtful that the ad makers would intentionally undermine their own advertisement.

A person could argue the efficacy of the “hypothetical scenario” tactic, and whether listeners would be confused by the ad and really think that gas taxes had been increased. But those are style or strategy points, not factual ones.

Throughout this election Truth Squad stated things that are not true, and often offered judgments that were unjustified. To benefit all, they should embrace their role as a “Truth Squad” and be careful to stick to the facts.

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