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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

The Truth About Truth

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What is truth?

It’s the sort of deep, philosophical question that can keep college kids arguing passionately and earnestly far into the night.

One thing is clear, however, about the nature of truth in Wisconsin’s current political campaigns: Truth is not something that can be measured by a Truth-O-Meter.

When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper, announced it had joined the St. Petersburg Times’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning PolitiFact project to track the veracity of political campaigns, many of us welcomed the idea.

It came at a time when extremist Tea Party Republicans were unleashing outrageous lies as an intentional political strategy. They spread whopper after whopper about the president’s citizenship, religion and political ideology, as well as imaginary government panels plotting to exterminate senior citizens.

The Journal Sentinel assigned a swarm of its very best reporters to comb sentence by sentence through the campaign rhetoric of state elections to hand down pronouncements on whether election claims were True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False or the ignominious Pants On Fire.

The first thing you notice about the grading system is that there are four shades of truth (including not very true) and only two kinds of lies—a lie and a %$#@ LIE!

Most professional politicians are sophisticated enough to deal in half-truths. It’s usually easier to get someone to believe something that’s not true if you dress it up with a few known facts and simply twist those facts until they bear absolutely no resemblance to reality.

But that’s not the biggest problem with the Truth-O-Meter.

For weeks, as journalists have wasted their talents interminably examining isolated sentences in political commercials, we’ve endured column after column of tortured hair-splitting about the nuances of various parts of speech.

At the same time, we’ve learned practically nothing of the actual truth about the records of the candidates. And some of the biggest lies underlying some major campaigns have gone completely unreported and unchallenged.

This is far worse than the old cliché about failing to see the forest for the trees. The Truth-O-Meter is lost somewhere in the woods focusing on blades of grass.

Truth Malfunction

The campaigns for governor of Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker both have broad themes that should be examined closely by serious journalists.

Barrett, as mayor of Milwaukee, presents himself as a job creator. Obviously, the devastating national recession was not Barrett’s fault, but the mayor and every other local leader share the shame of failing to organize a crisis response to Milwaukee having the fourth-highest urban poverty rate in the nation.

But it is in response to the campaign of County Executive Walker the Truth-O-Meter has seriously malfunctioned.

Quite frankly, Walker has been making claims around the state that Milwaukee reporters know to be false.

In speeches and ads, Walker brazenly suggests he should be elected governor of the state because of his fiscal management of Milwaukee County. Walker claims he stabilized a disastrous economic situation, prevented tax increases and sometimes even created surpluses.

This is the same Scott Walker who dropped out of his last campaign for governor in 2006 shortly after publicly announcing Milwaukee County might require a major bailout from the state to avoid bankruptcy under his leadership.

Milwaukee County’s finances haven’t gotten any better since. In fact, they’re worse since Walker borrowed $400 million to invest over 25 years, hoping to earn enough to reduce the county’s ballooning pension debt. No one’s personal financial adviser would ever advocate such a risky scheme.

Barrett recently launched a series of tough ads citing news stories about the county’s dire straits financially as well as patient safety issues at the mental health center and mismanagement of poverty assistance programs that resulted in a state takeover.

The Journal Sentinel and its reporters are well aware of the precarious state of Milwaukee County’s finances. But when the newspaper ran Barrett’s ad on the county’s financial crisis through its Truth-O-Meter, an amazing thing happened.

As might be expected, the Truth-O-Meter lit up and said: “Tilt!” But, unbelievably, it wasn’t Walker’s financial misrepresentations that set off all the alarms. The Truth-O-Meter didn’t like the graphics the Barrett campaign used in the commercial.

Specifically, the Journal Sentinel didn’t like the fact that headlines from its own newspaper flashed by on the screen to tell the story of the financial shambles of Milwaukee County.

They were actual headlines from the newspaper. But editor Martin Kaiser objected they weren’t exact replicas of the stories. The nameplate of the newspaper was sometimes included over the stories. Pictures of Walker were inserted.

There’s something seriously wrong with a Truth-O-Meter that objects to how its newspaper is represented, but fails to notice the Big Lie of a completely untrue picture of Milwaukee County’s financial management being spread throughout the state during an election.

And that’s the truth.