The Washington Post

Candidates flinging Pinocchios at each other

The Fact Checker is used to politicians citing negative fact checks about their opponents in campaign debates or even political advertisements. But this is a new one: Both sides in the hard-fought GOP primary battle between Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Bryan Smith are citing Pinocchio ratings in television ads about the very same subject. The Simpson ad even shows Smith’s nose growing to Pinocchio length.

It appears to be a new genre of advertising: a negative anti-negative ad. Is it any wonder that voters in Idaho might be confused? Let’s try to untangle this.

Club for Growth ad

“Simpson says he voted to repeal the Wall Street bailout. Fact checkers call that false.”

–Voiceover in ad

The Club for Growth, which is backing Smith, accurately cites fact checks from The Fact Checker and that criticized Simpson for suggesting that he opposed the Wall Street bailout.  Instead, one of his ads had cited a relatively minor action – a failed procedural vote to direct a committee to terminate half of the funding for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and develop a repayment plan for the money that had been spent. We awarded Two Pinocchios for his misleading campaign advertising, saying “he should not emphasize the vote to end TARP without acknowledging that he voted for the program in the first place.”

The Club for Growth uses footage of Simpson saying “I voted for the $700 billion bailout” to undercut his attacks on Smith. (The clip does not include his explanation that it was necessary to free up bank credit.) The ad represents the fact checks accurately, but it then it goes on to suggest that this means that all of Simpson’s attacks on Smith are lies. We have not rated any other claims made by Simpson in the race.


Mike Simpson ad

“The Post likened his allies to Pinocchio….Mike Simpson protected us from a meltdown of the U.S. banking system. Simpson voted to repeal the Wall Street bailout, repay taxpayers.”

–Voiceover in ad

In response to Club for Growth’s attack, the Simpson campaign began running an ad that depicts Smith as a puppet with a growing nose. It cites The Fact Checker’s awarding of a single Pinocchio to a Club for Growth ad that we said “sticks relatively close to the facts,” though we called into question an assertion that Simpson had worked with Democrats to boost the size of President Obama’s stimulus bill. So the Simpson team is certainly trying to get a lot of mileage out of a relatively positive fact check. The Fact Checker did not “liken” Club for Growth to Pinocchio.

The most interesting aspect of the ad is that it repeats the claim that earned Simpson Two Pinocchios, but it precedes it with this line: “Mike Simpson protected us from a meltdown of the U.S. banking system.”

Sarah Nelson, a Simpson campaign adviser, said the campaign was responding to the Fact Checker’s admonition that Simpson needed to admit he voted for the bailout. “When we were putting this ad together we took your fact check into full consideration and your assessment that we needed to include both votes when we talked about TARP,” she said. “That’s again why we talk about and cite both votes in our ad.”

Viewers might think the ad is talking about two different things—saving the financial system and canceling a “bailout”—but we can’t complain when ad makers respond to our fact checks.

The Pinocchio Test

In neither case do these ads warrant a Pinocchio rating or a Geppetto. We want to remind readers that we rate statements on a case by case basis, so a single rating does not mean that a politician or an organization is a Pinocchio. Meanwhile, the voters in Idaho might consider muting their televisions when the political ads start running.

No rating

(About our rating scale)


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.



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Glenn Kessler · April 25, 2014

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