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Media truth squads and the ’08 campaign: Any impact?

Reporters aim to check facts behind candidates’ claims, but effect on voters is unclear.

By Staff writer / September 18, 2008

John McCain speaks to the media at a rally in Columbia, S.C.

Joshua Lott/Reuters

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Washington

“A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on,” it is said in a quote commonly attributed to Scottish inventor James Watt.

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This aphorism may never have felt more true than in the 2008 presidential campaign. And more than ever, independent organizations and media outlets – from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org to Politifact, a project by the St. Petersburg Times, to other truth-squadding efforts in the mainstream media – have tried to referee the claims and assertions of the candidates and their campaigns.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice-presidential nominee, has stated repeatedly that she rejected the so-called “bridge to nowhere” as congressional pork, when in fact she welcomed it until it became politically radioactive in Washington. She continued to repeat her “thanks, but no thanks” line long after a wave of media stories punctured her claim.

Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, has dined out for months on how his Republican rival, John McCain, wants to wage war in Iraq for 100 more years when, in fact, Senator McCain’s point was that he was willing to maintain a US military presence in Iraq long after the hostilities had ended, as the US did in Europe after World War II.

But given the low regard in which the public holds the news media, is all this truth-squadding having an impact?

“To some extent, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Facts derive their meaning from the context in which viewers see them.”

In other words, some people are going to care deeply that, for example, Governor Palin is making questionable or untrue assertions about her record and others won’t. “It depends on your view of Sarah Palin,” says Mr. Rosenstiel.

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