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Fact-Checking Those Nasty Ads: It Ain't What It Used To Be.

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Taking in political advertisements for this year's mid-term elections is "like drinking from a fire hose," said Brooks Jackson, a veteran journalist who has reported for the The Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN and is the director of FactCheck.org. It's a non-partisan, non-profit element of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that focuses on the practice of fact-checking the statements of politicians.

FactCheck is a helpful resource for an election season in which political ads have been substantial – less so, perhaps, in content than sheer volume.

The Washington Post reports today that candidates "rushed out more than 600 new television ads ahead of network deadlines for the weekend," topping off a spending spree this season that will reach more than $2 billion. That's according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, with whom the Post consulted. The $2 billion this year is $400 million more than what was spent on advertising in 2004. The AP today shares Nielsen's numbers -- 942,900 political ads ran between Aug.1 and Oct. 15, 31 percent more than the same period four years ago.

Where the media is concerned, much of the focus has remained on just how nasty those nasty campaign ads are getting. (CBSNews.com has a compendium of the nastiest.) The tawdry tales catalogued within advertisements for both parties' candidates in Virginia's and Tennessee's Senate races in particular have soaked up lots of space in newspapers and on television.

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The talk of just how nasty the ads have become is something you hear during the course of every election, said Jackson. "I'm not saying it's not true, but there's no hard data. Reporters tend to say this reflexively."

"Having said that," Jackson conceded with a chuckle, "I can't remember campaign ads as negative as these."

But, according to Jackson, the press pointing out these ads' overwhelming negativity isn't particularly useful to voters anyway. "The important thing is not whether [an ad] is negative or positive," he said, acknowledging that negative ads likely do put off some voters. Instead, "the important thing is whether they are true or not. What's so toxic is that facts are made up or false, or literally true … but designed to give a totally false impression."

And that misinformation affects voters at the polls. Campaigners "must believe that it's working," said Jackson, "or they wouldn't spend so much money on it."

But Jackson says that the press spends far too little time, if any, fact-checking these ads. "The media, unfortunately, by and large, isn't inclined to do this in the first place, which I think is a great failing," he said.

Jackson identifies a certain "golden period" in the 1992 campaigns, when "you saw a lot of aggressive ad checking," in the press. He credits that as a reaction to the controversial "Willie Horton" ad created for the 1988 presidential campaign by a Republican group that was criticized as playing to racial fears.

"But after this initial flush of enthusiasm," said Jackson, "the typical newspaper ad check became a box on page 15." The article would identify the ad, its ostensible strategy, "and about the third item mentioned would be accuracy," said Jackson. "And that's where you would find out, that this is bunk. But it wouldn't be the headline."

"It should be the front page," he added.

What about the argument that the American voter is skeptical enough to already be aware that much of what is contained in such advertisements is false?

"It's like keeping water out of your basement," said Jackson. "Even when you think you're not paying attention, this stuff just gets absorbed. Unless you make an uncommonly strong effort to keep an open mind and look for real evidence -- and most don't have the mindset or the time to do that."

It's instead a job that ultimately falls to journalists, said Jackson.

USA Today, for their part, has a "Reality Check" on several campaign ads in its pages today -- on page 11A -- alongside a story about the apparent effectiveness of nasty campaign advertising.

You can read more about this issue here, in Brooks Jackson's Washington Post chat with readers earlier this week.

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