By DAVID CRARY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — It's unprecedented, the experts say: The volume and audacity of distortion, deception and truth-stretching in this year's presidential campaign has political fact-checkers busier than ever in their pursuit of the truth. But whose truth, precisely? And, in the context of a bitter campaign, does the actual truth — and the responsibility of a politician to tell it — really matter?
The question hangs over every modern campaign, and of course lying and truth-stretching have abounded in politics throughout U.S. history. But there are differences this time around. The convention speech last week by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan may have brought the conversation into focus, but his carefully parsed words are hardly the only ones in the political arena that make people wonder if truth is becoming elastic.
"The partisans of the two parties might have a different attitude toward the truth," said Lionel McPherson, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at Tufts University. "It's possible one side doesn't care — they think they can make those claims to their base with impunity, even if it's obvious those claims are false or misleading."
Recent changes in campaign-finance regulations have enabled super PACs — outside political action committees bankrolled by wealthy Americans — to spend huge sums on aggressive ads that ostensibly are beyond the control of the candidates' own campaign operation.
These proliferating third-party ads have been less accurate than candidate-sponsored ads, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. As a result, she said, "the sheer amount of deception is higher."
Another factor: Political ads are spread across ever-diversifying media, often resulting in highly targeted ads catering to specific interest groups rather than the electorate as a whole. That can produce many different shades of a statement — and different interpretations of its truthfulness.
"What's different is that there are more messages and more fact-checkers, and naturally more conflict between them," said Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.com. "Our goal is not to get politicians to stop lying ... Our goal is giving voters vital information about what's true and what's not."
Adair's organization, a project of The Tampa Bay Times, has grown to encompass 36 reporters and editors. Full-fledged fact-checking operations also are conducted by The Associated Press, The Washington Post, FactCheck.org and others.
Yet Republican and Democratic campaign operatives seem undeterred by the fact-checking. They're eager to trumpet findings that discredit their opponents while dismissing findings that challenge their own ads and rhetoric.
Mitt Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, has indicated to ABC News/Yahoo News that his campaign won't be swayed by outside complaints of inaccuracy. "Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and you know what? We're not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," he said.
Officials from President Barack Obama's campaign insist they strive for accuracy but have not repudiated anti-Romney ads that were widely depicted as unfair. One example: a pro-Obama super PAC ad suggesting that a woman's death from cancer was linked to the layoff of her steelworker husband by Romney's firm, Bain Capital.
"We look at the facts. We vet what we say. We really do try hard to get it right," Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt told ABC News/Yahoo News. "So there are some times when there are different sets of facts out there. The campaign highlights a set of facts. You may find a different set of facts and make that point."
Robert Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, said the level of truth-stretching and distortion in this campaign is "the worst I've ever seen" but expressed doubt that the fact-checkers have much influence on undecided voters.
"The electorate they're going after are not paying close attention," he said. "They're not likely to read the criticism in the high-towered political columns. All they're seeing the ads that intrude on them."
He attributed the spate of truth-stretching ads to increased polarization of the two parties, and the campaign strategy of trying to define an opponent in negative terms before the rival can do likewise.