Book Review, Culture, Domestic — May 2, 2007 at 4:40 pm

Truth in Advertising

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Everybody knows that politicians lie. They mudsling, twist facts, and express regret over things, often claiming that what they “actually meant at the time” was misconstrued. In fact, it is so obvious that the noses of our current leaders are unnaturally long that it is not even cool to talk about it anymore. Bush is a liar, Cheney’s a bigger liar, and Rove’s the biggest, fattest liar of all. Everyone knows it. Everyone accepts it. No one seems to care.

But alas, we’ve all been saved. Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, founders of Factcheck.org and authors of unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, want none of it. They are on a crusade to expose surprising truths and arm the public with the assault weapons—read: nonautomatic handguns—with which to recognize the political falsehoods of Bush’s posse. As the 2008 elections approach, watch out, heads up, my friends say. It is difficult to maintain a high level of skepticism, but it is necessary in order to be engaged and informed. Never mind the fact that our President is lying to the American public in the first place, never mind the untruths that so many of our compatriots will believe. Just read this book, and you’ll be A-okay.

The authors offer warning signs for bogus claims. Stories that seem “too good” probably are; superlative assertions are often exaggerations, and “if it’s scary, be wary.” Take Michael Moore’s proposition, as presented in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that bin Laden’s family was allowed to leave the country on a special flight immediately after the September 11 attacks. That story is almost “too good” to be true. It’s also a lie.

Republicans often claim that Congress penned the biggest tax hike in history under Clinton. Superlative! It turns out that their assessments do not account for inflation, increasing incomes and general economic growth. Whammy.

Bush told us that Saddam Hussein had been pursuing WMDs and looking to enrich uranium from Nigeria. They were hot on his trail, said Bush in his 2003 State of the Union, and didn’t want the “smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” That line is scary: I’m wary. And rightfully so.

Jackson and Jamieson told me to watch for glittering generalities, like Kerry’s promise to protect the taxes of the middle class (how are we defining “middle” anyway?), and the framing of issues (think “No Child Left Behind,” “the death tax,” “progressivism,” and “compassionate conservatism”). Some of their tricks, including looking for words like “up to” as in “up to 50 percent off,” can fortuitously be applied in other arenas of life.

The authors note that there is a legal right to lie, which may lessen the guilt of advertisers, writers, and politicians alike. I think they mean that lying is a civil liberty, but either way, that doesn’t mean anyone should get away with it. Remember what happened in 1998? Clinton signed a statement that read: “there is absolutely no sex of any kind” between him and that intern. After the truth was exposed, he later explained: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is…If ‘is’ means is and never has been that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”

Kenneth Starr knew that one was just too good to be true. Next time, I’ll be ready with my book to find out the truth just like he did. Thank you, Mr. Brooks, thank you, Ms. Jamieson!

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