Email is the easiest and cheapest way to tell political lies. And you can’t blame the campaigns, or even journalists because these emails rarely cross the desks of editors. Bill Adair, editor of Politifact.com, weighs in on what’s true and what’s not from the latest crop of smear emails.
BOB GARFIELD: The McCain campaign, try as it might to constrain the media’s vetting of Sarah Palin, cannot control the increasingly heavy traffic in smeary emails. And you can't blame journalists this time. These emails rarely cross the desk of newspaper editors or fact checkers. In fact, those people may not even know these emails exist.
This week, our inboxes were hit with the email containing Palin’s supposed lists of books to ban, and it made us curious. We awaited judgment by the fact-check watchdogs who vet these things when they make landfall, and by Wednesday, Bill Adair, editor of Politifact.com, assured us that the books-to-ban list was sheer smear. BILL ADAIR: The biggest clue is that it lists several books that were published after she was mayor. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That sounds like a clue. BILL ADAIR: It’s a good clue. It appears what somebody did was take a generic list of books that have been banned and basically slap a headline on it that says, the books Sarah Palin tried to have banned, and send it to a million people. BOB GARFIELD: So in this case, anachronism as smoking gun. Is there [BILL ADAIR LAUGHS] any way to know the provenance of this email? BILL ADAIR: We have not been able to find the author, and have made some effort to do that. And that’s typical. You know, this is sort of the modern version of smears. This is how it’s done. You take something that may have a grain of truth or you just make it up completely, you send it out to a few people, they send it out to many more people. And all of this happens with lightning speed. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is another email that’s making its rounds which doesn't appear to have been intended as a political smear, although it’s kind of working that way, and this was by a Wasilla, Alaska resident named Anne Kilkenny. BILL ADAIR: Unlike many of the emails we've checked, what was [LAUGHS] unique about this one, Kilkenny had actually signed her name and therefore was held accountable for it, which was refreshing for us. And it just sort of went through her impressions of Sarah Palin and Palin’s time as mayor of Wasilla in a relatively objective way, but then it made some critical points and we decided to fact-check those. BOB GARFIELD: Let's tick through them. One was that she fired the city police chief because he, quote, “intimidated” her. BILL ADAIR: It’s referring to the firing of Police Chief Irl Stambaugh, and in looking through the news accounts from the time and also from the civil suit that was filed out of it, it doesn't appear that intimidation was the big factor, but it was mentioned prominently in one of the documents we looked at. So we gave that one a “mostly true.” BOB GARFIELD: Another Kilkenny charge was that Palin inherited a city with zero debt and left it with indebtedness of more than 22 million dollars. True? BILL ADAIR: The numbers are a little bit off, but she was close. We gave it a “mostly true,” but it’s important to recognize that’s not to necessarily say that indebtedness for a city is a bad thing. I think all of that debt was approved by voters in referenda. BOB GARFIELD: And it’s important to recognize throughout this campaign that a lot of facts will be asserted that may be accurate as far as they go, but cited out of context may be utterly misleading. BILL ADAIR: The biggest one we've seen along those lines has to do with taxes. McCain has made claims about Obama – he’s gonna to raise taxes. And, yes, if you make more than 250,000 dollars, Barack Obama will increase your taxes. But if you make less than that, or 200,000 if you’re an individual, he'll give you a tax cut. And so it’s been misleading the way the McCain campaign has stated that.
And that’s what we've tried to do on Politifact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative truth of each claim. BOB GARFIELD: To finish up with the Kilkenny email, she also got into the book-banning episode. In fact, that’s maybe how it was introduced to the world. Did it, in fact, take place? BILL ADAIR: The email said that while she was mayor of Wasilla, Palin tried to fire our highly-respected city librarian because the librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. The librarian has declined to talk about the whole incident.
We did find a reporter who had covered this, and he confirmed it to a point where he even gave us titles of some books that he recalled that Palin had sought to have banned. Those weren't actually accurate, but once we sort of verified, we found a title that was close that we believe was the one he was referring to, and he confirmed it, a book called Pastor, I'm Gay. And all of this kind of adds up to some confirmation that indeed this happened, but not overwhelming proof. So we ended up giving it a “half-true.” I think it’s one of these things we may be updating if we get more information.
These emails get a lot of credibility because they're sent by your Uncle Joe. You know, well, I got it from Uncle Joe, and he - you know, he wouldn't send me something that was wrong. BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s interesting that you should observe that. Do you have any reason to think that people are sort of catching up to the dynamic of political emails and learning to discount them as much as they would discount, say, a political ad?
BILL ADAIR: Not yet, in fact, to the contrary. Originally we were seeing a lot of these chain emails from the right criticizing the Democrats. And what we've seen in the last two weeks is that the left is using the same tactic. I don't think we've reached the point yet where people are that savvy about these things.
And if you look at the polls, the percentage of people who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim has actually increased, and I would attribute that largely to the chain emails. So I think we in the media really have an obligation to tell people what’s true and what’s not. BOB GARFIELD: Bill, thank you so much. BILL ADAIR: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Bill Adair is editor of Politifact, P-o-l-i-t-i-f-a-c-t.com.