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Air Wars

June 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: The presidential campaigns are not alone in running political television ads this election year. Independent advocacy groups are joining the fray. Those groups have raised some $183 million so far this cycle, much of it spent on ads.

Here with me to discuss some of these independent ads is Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Brooks, welcome. These independent ads that we’re about to screen are from groups that are not formally affiliated with either campaign, and yet they don’t leave a great deal of doubt as to who they’re supporting.

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, that’s true, and legally they can’t be affiliated or even coordinate their efforts without running afoul of the law. That’s nothing new. We’ve seen independent groups spending big time in campaigns before, but nothing on this scale. What’s happening is lots of money, tens of millions of dollars that used to go to political parties as soft money for these kinds of ads, is now going to these independent groups because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Well, let’s take a look at some of these ads. The first one is called Corporate Headquarters, and it’s sponsored by the Media Fund, which is a high-profile Democratic group. Let’s take a look.

AD VOICEOVER: Instead of protecting pensions, George Bush supported a bill giving Enron huge new tax breaks. Instead of giving seniors more prescription drug benefits, Bush gave drug companies billions in his Medicare bill. Instead of fighting corporate corruption, George Bush gave no-bid contracts to Halliburton, a company caught overcharging for fuel and food for our soldiers in Iraq. George Bush: He’s turned the White House into corporate headquarters.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, now that is — that’s laying it directly at George Bush’s doormat.

BROOKS JACKSON: Oh, boy, one of my favorites, and the images are great. Now, that, of course, is run by a group headed by Harold Ickes, who ought to know about the White House and corporate influence. He was the guy in charge of the White House sleepovers during the Clinton administration when he was deputy chief of staff.

This ad is — really, it’s hard to cram this much distortion into a 30-second ad, but they do it. Just a couple of points: They say Bush didn’t do anything about pensions. In fact, he signed a pension reform bill addressing some of the abuses that came up during the Enron scandal. It said he didn’t do anything about corporate corruption. There’s never been such a wave of corporate prosecutions — 250 individuals convicted so far, 20 Enron executives alone charged already, on and on. But it’s an effective ad, though.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. A second one. It’s called Man of the People. It’s sponsored by Citizens United, a conservative group, and it pokes fun at Senator Kerry’s wealth. So, let’s take a look at it.

AD VOICEOVER: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Hairstyle by Christophe’s: $75. Designer shirts: $250. 42-foot luxury yacht: $1 million. Four lavish mansions and beach-front estate: Over $30 million. Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a “man of the people”: Priceless.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, also clever. Is it a fair description of John Kerry’s status?

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, yes and no. For one thing, John Kerry — I’ve never heard him claim to be a man of the people, and I don’t think he ever would. And some of his ads, in fact, he makes a point of his privileged upbringing, says it gives him special responsibilities. Of course, the wealth that’s portrayed here, all pretty much accurate. Most of those houses are in his wife’s name, of course. The yacht, yes, he’s got a big Hinckley, and that’s all true. The thing that strikes me as amusing about this is usually it’s Republicans you hear complaining about class warfare when Democrats attack the rich for being rich or for getting tax breaks. Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

TERENCE SMITH: Apparently, it works both ways.

BROOKS JACKSON: They’re attacking Kerry for being wealthy.

TERENCE SMITH: Here’s another one. This is called Halliburton, which gives you some idea. It’s funded by MoveOn.org, which is a liberal, Web-based Political Action Committee. So let’s take a look at it.

AD VOICEOVER: The Bush administration gave Dick Cheney’s old company no-bid contracts for Iraq on a silver platter. Then, the Pentagon caught Halliburton overcharging $61 million for gasoline. Worse, they billed over $100 million for meals for our troops that they never delivered. And George Bush is still doing business with them. George Bush, a failure of leadership. MoveOn PAC is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

TERENCE SMITH: Fair or unfair?

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, unfair in some ways. This — if all you knew about Halliburton is what you saw in ads like this one, you would think they had been officially charged with wrongdoing, and they haven’t. Their auditors are questioning expenditures for gasoline, it’s true, and for meals served to troops, it’s true. Nothing’s been finally settled. These billing disputes arise all the time. The idea that the contracts were given on a silver platter with all these wads of cash, independent congressional General Accounting Office ruled that the contracts were legal and while there were some discrepancies in some of the add-ons, they probably could have been justified if they filled in the right blanks in the paperwork.

TERENCE SMITH: Here’s another one. It’s called Michael. It’s funded again by the conservative Citizens United and it’s aired in several battleground states. Let’s take a look.

MAN IN AD: On Sept. 11, terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, including 346 firefighter — one of which was my son, Michael. I lost my son. I spoke to him that day. He went to work that morning and he died for a reason, because somebody hates America. And that day, George Bush became a leader, a war president. I feel very comfortable with him as president. We want a guy that’s going to lead us to victory in this war.

TERENCE SMITH: So those are some painful and sensitive images.

BROOKS JACKSON: Absolutely. And George Bush, of course, in his initial ad was criticized by the Democrats when he showed about three seconds of imagery from Ground Zero. What this illustrates is that an independent group can do things that the candidate himself can’t do.

TERENCE SMITH: Precisely.

BROOKS JACKSON: Another remarkable thing about this is how few people saw it. Only about $100,000 spent behind that ad. Liberals really have the advantage in this independent spending war so far.

TERENCE SMITH: Here’s another one. This is called Position. It’s paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, which is a well-established environmental group. Let’s take a look at it.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As you can see there is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida.

AD VOICEOVER: There sure isn’t. President Bush opened up Florida’s coast to offshore drilling and he supported an energy bill that could lead to even more. Well, what would you expect from a Texas oilman? Just one accident can destroy a coastline.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I put programs in place that help Mother Nature.

AD VOICEOVER: Mr. President, your oil drilling off Florida’s coast isn’t one of them.

TERENCE SMITH: Accurate?

BROOKS JACKSON: Well, off Florida’s coast? The truth is, the Bush administration allowed drilling 100 miles off Florida’s coast. I think anybody watching this ad would probably get the wrong idea.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. And finally, Freedom, which is funded by the Conservative Club for Growth, which describes itself as a free market political advocacy organization. Let’s take a look at it.

AD VOICEOVER: The World Trade Center Towers were more than just buildings. They were symbols of hard working people, economic freedom and opportunity, the American way of life. That’s why the terrorists attacked them. Our enemies want to destroy America’s freedoms. President Bush is fighting terrorism to save lives and protect liberty. George W. Bush, the vision to promote freedom and the courage to defend it.

TERENCE SMITH: Again, Brooks, the direct use of 9/11 images.

BROOKS JACKSON: Absolutely, in a way, again, that the candidate himself probably doesn’t want to do right now, and doesn’t have to do if groups like these supporting him. Now, you have to note here that so far liberal groups have been overwhelmingly on the attack with these ads. There’s been very few conservative ads of the kind we’ve been showing here. They’ve had very little money behind them comparatively so far. That may even up as we proceed because conservative groups are trying the raise more money. But, so far, it’s kind of a one-two punch. John Kerry is running mostly positive ads while liberal groups are busy attacking Bush with tens of millions of ads like the ones we just saw.

TERENCE SMITH: And as you said, they have greater latitude than the candidates themselves.

BROOKS JACKSON: Absolutely. They can do that and hopefully from their standpoint it’s not going to back-splatter on the candidate.

TERENCE SMITH: Brooks Jackson, thanks very much.

BROOKS JACKSON: My pleasure, Terry.