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Talent for Deception—Missouri Sen. Talent's Attacks Use False Attribution

October 24, 2006

In four separate TV spots Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri falsely attributes several unflattering quotes about his opponent to the Kansas City Star. Our examination reveals that the quotes actually come from rival Claire McCaskill's political opponents and critics, not from the Star's reporters or editors. In another case, where a Talent ad uses a phrase that actually did come from a newspaper, it is out of context and misleading. The negative remark was in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial that was endorsing McCaskill for election. Political campaigns often quote newspaper stories and editorials because voters tend to give them greater weight than the self-interested statements of office seekers. There's nothing misleading about that if the quotes are accurate, in context and properly attributed. But these Talent ads deceive voters by misappropriating the newspapers' credibility. Analysis The four ads in question are titled "Certain," "Fighting for Seniors," "Failed Seniors 1," and "Failed Seniors 2;" all released over the past three weeks. Throughout these ads fragmentary quotes about McCaskill appear, superimposed over the banner of the Kansas City Star. The quotes include: "spreading untruths," "exaggerating," "false," "embellished" and "clearly violated ethical standards." But none of these were the words of the Star's reporters or editors. We were able to document the Talent ads' deception using a database search of the Star's news reports and editorials, despite the fact that the ads give no dates for most of the supposed quotes. The Talent campaign did not respond to our repeated requests over several days to document the source of the quotes.

"Spreading untruths." This quote is shown in two ads. Neither gives a date. However, our database search found only one Star story naming McCaskill in which the phrase "spreading untruths" appears. That is a March 14, 2004 article, in which the Star quotes complaints about McCaskill from a political opponent, then -Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, who was chairman of the re-election campaign of then-Gov. Bob Holden, whom McCaskill was challenging in the Democratic primary. (She went on to win the nomination but lose in the general election) McCaskill, the state auditor, had issued a critical audit of the state's prescription drug plan. The Star quoted the governor's campaign chairman as saying: "I will not stand by and allow you to demean this prescription benefit by spreading untruths." The Star reported Maxwell's statement and McCaskill's rebuttal without any comment of its own.

"Exaggerating" state audits . This quote is used five times in the four ads. Only once is the date given: July 17, 2004. The article is a profile of McCaskill, and contains the sentence: "Critics accuse McCaskill of sometimes exaggerating her audit results." The ad falsely implies that the words are the newspaper's judgment of McCaskill, rather than unnamed "critics." The article goes on to quote one of those critics, her political opponent Maxwell.

"False" and "Embellish." These two words are quoted together in the most recent Talent ad and "embellish" appears in a second ad on its own. Neither ad gives a date for the quotes. However, in the same July 17 profile just mentioned, the Star quotes Maxwell – him again – as saying her comments on the state drug plan "not only embellish the audit, they are downright false." Maxwell's?? statement also was quoted in the earlier March 14 Star article as well, but we found no instance in which the Star itself used those words to describe McCaskill, either in a news report or an editorial.

"Clearly violated ethical standards." One ad  says that "The Kansas City Star wrote that as Jackson County Prosecutor, McCaskill violated ethical standards, and misled a Special Prosecutor investigating drug use by her employees." That's false. The Star reached no such conclusions.

The words are based on a June 29, 2004 article in the Star reporting on an investigation by a special prosecutor into the handling of a drug case by McCaskill's office in the early 1990's. The special prosecutor cleared McCaskill of obstructing the investigation of an underling, saying  her behavior "does not demonstrate, in my opinion, an intent to obstruct an investigation but rather misplaced trust." However, the Star contacted a Pace University law professor, Bennett Gershman, who offered a dissenting view, saying "she clearly violated ethical standards for attorneys and prosecutors" by communicating with a staffer who was under investigation.

Other misleading quotes

One Talent ad uses a newspaper quote that is properly attributed, but naked of context. It quotes a July 25, 2004 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying McCaskill"Used this office transparently for political gain." Not mentioned is that the words are taken from an otherwise positive endorsement of McCaskill in her 2004 race for governor:
Post-Dispatch: As state auditor, she has emphasized performance audits that look beyond just dollars and cents to see how effectively state offices work. Ms. McCaskill has used this office transparently for political gain and sometimes overstated the potential financial savings of an audit finding. But the job gives her a good idea of where the state can save money.

The Post-Dispatch also praised McCaskill's "unbridled drive, sheer determination, and intellectual energy," and called her a "promising and dynamic leader."

Another Talent ad uses the words "The situation is worse" to describe conditions in nursing homes. The words are again attributed to the Star, but actually come from McCaskill herself. Furthermore, she was criticizing the handling of nursing-home inspections under Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, and not her own performance as auditor. In a Sept. 15, 2006 Kansas City Star article, describing what her latest audit of nursing-home inspections had found,  she says:
McCaskill: What is depressing today is not only have we not made progress, but the situation is worse that it was when the first audit was released in 2000.

McCaskill concluded that state officials were not inspecting nursing homes frequently enough, and that inspections had declined since her earlier audit in 2003 had found improvement.

The Talent campaign ends two of the ads with the tagline, "but there's more to the story." We find that "the story" so far has been filled with misinformation.
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