With an election less than two weeks away, the primary campaign season is hitting overdrive, which means that voters are going to be subjected to all manner of ads from politicians desperate to sway opinions and win votes.
One of the inevitable consequences of that desperation will be attempts by candidates and their deep-pocketed allies to distort records, shade the truth or flat-out lie. Given the extent of prevarication and crafty parsing that is the hallmark of political campaigns, what is an open-minded voter interested in making an informed decision based on clear facts supposed to do?
Well, for starters they can aim their Web browsers in the direction of the Michigan Truth Squad (michigantruthsquad.com) to get a nonpartisan dissection of campaign mailers and media ads touting or attacking candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state House and Senate seats.
The need for a project like this, according to a posting on the squad's Web site, is abundantly clear:
"For too long some Michigan politicians and their consultants have stretched the truth, broken trust with the voters, and ignored the consequences of their campaigns. The result is undue mistrust in our political process, one that is ultimately controlled by voters — ideally, informed voters like you who are taking the time to learn about the issues and the people who will represent them in our representative democracy."
The squad is a project of the Center for Michigan, a nonpartisan "think and do" tank founded by former newspaper publisher Phil Power. Founded in 2006 after Power sold his HomeTown newspaper chain to Gannett, the goal of the center is to improve the policy and political environment in Michigan.
The Truth Squad is a way of helping to accomplish both of those things. By deflating character assassinations and exposing questionable claims, one consequence of this effort will, hopefully, be that politicians worried about the fallout from a negative Truth Squad report will be motivated to keep their campaigns steered toward the substantive issues facing a state that's in an economic crisis.
"People are concerned about the economy, jobs, education and reform," says John Bebow, Center for Michigan's executive director. "What they are not concerned about is whether there was a party at the Manoogian Mansion, or if [gubernatorial candidate] Andy Dillon shipped jobs off to China."
Like Power, Bebow is a former newspaper guy. Before joining the nonprofit in 2006 he worked as a journalist for 16 years, putting in time as an investigative reporter at both Detroit dailies and the Chicago Tribune. All that journalism experience at the top of the center infuses the group with a sort of reportorial ethos. So when Bebow makes mention of what Michiganders are talking about politically when they sit on front porches shooting the breeze with family and friends, he's not just making idle conjecture.
The center recently released a report titled "10,000 Voices," a multi-year effort to gather information from Michigan's residents and then turn that info into a plan for action. The demographics behind the report are both broad and deep. Nearly 600 community meetings were held at "bars and churches, homeless shelters and corporate board rooms," says Bebow. "That's how we operate. First we talk to people, and then we write a policy report."
That same sort of broad input is also crucial in helping make the Truth Squad effective.
Again, from the Web site, here's the message Bebow would like to see spread to concerned citizens throughout the state:
"Identify questionable claims in the political advertisement you see or hear this year. If you hear or see a political ad (on TV, radio, in the newspaper, in the mail, on the Internet, via e-mail), direct mail piece, individual campaign website, blog, press release, or other campaign material that raises questions in your mind, send us a Truth Squad Tip. ... If a tip exposes an exaggeration, misinformation, an outright lie, or a distortion, we will call a 'Foul!' on the candidate and campaign."
Tipsters can remain anonymous if they want. But they can also get a chance to win T-shirts, camcorders or, the grand prize — a two-night stay at the Greektown Casino-Hotel.
The project has already exceeded expectations, says Bebow. "We wanted to get 5,000 people to visit our site" before Election Day in November. "We've already exceeded that number, and there are still 13 weeks of campaigning to go."
Submitted tips are evaluated and investigated by a pair of Truth Squad "referees" — veteran reporters Rick Haglund and Susan J. Demas. With their input, the center then issues evaluations. Ads can be hit with a "flagrant foul," which means there have been statements that distort or incorrectly state a fact involving an individual.
A "technical foul" is handed out when "a statement that implies something that isn't quite true and deserves additional explanation, or that is entirely false." A "regular foul" is earned when distortions or incorrect facts involve policy. And then there are "warnings," which involves statements "that could easily be misconstrued, but are generally truthful."
There are also "no foul" calls, because sometimes the squad "will review an ad and find that it is, indeed, totally accurate, even if it is not nice."
A few others organizations do similar work, but they typically cover national politics. This effort is alone in concentrating on Michigan politics.
Bebow sees the project as supplemental. The intent is not to compete with established papers and other media outlets, but rather to "augment them." The help is sorely needed at a time when reporters are already being stretched thin. "We all know how many empty desks are in newsrooms these days," says Bebow.
The cost of the project is about $50,000, which covers everything from creating the website to paying the writers to marketing and staff time. And the effort is really attracting attention.
"I feel like we've really tapped a nerve with this," says Bebow. "We throw a lot of things against the wall around here. Some things stick better than others. This one has really stuck."
Things could also get very sticky for politicians who don't play fair. According to Bebow, one of the Truth Squad reports in the pipeline involves a state House candidate who has been caught adding considerable padding to her resume.
"And I think there's going to be even more as we head into the general election," Bebow predicts.
We'll be watching.News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]