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Politics

In final weeks of Senate race, accusations of dishonesty proliferate

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 10, 2014

With less than a month until the election, both sides of the U.S. Senate campaign in Alaska say their opponents are stretching the truth to new lengths in their ads and social media postings.

The Alaska Democratic Party is citing recent comments from Republican Dan Sullivan that contradict published news reports as proof he's a "pathological liar," while Sullivan's campaign distributed a press release Friday linking to an article by FactCheck.org that blasts a claim in two Begich ads as "bogus."

Just how ubiquitous are the candidates' misrepresentations of one another? A press release from the Sullivan campaign last month attacking a widely discredited Begich TV ad included its own misleading statement -- that Begich had been the "deciding vote" for President Barack Obama's health care reform bill.

That "deciding vote" claim has been used by Republicans around the country to attack several other Democrats' votes for the health care measure -- and they've been widely panned as misleading.

While each side accuses the other of serial dishonesty in the Alaska Senate race, "neither campaign has clean hands here," said Angie Holan, editor of the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact -- which itself has already been branded by Sullivan's spokesman as "nothing more than an arm of the Democratic Party masquerading as journalism." (That was two months before PolitiFact gave Begich a "pants on fire" rating for his controversial television ad -- a rating that then showed up in more than a half dozen Republican emails and press releases.)

So far, PolitiFact has issued a handful of rulings on the Alaska Senate campaigns' claims, with Sullivan receiving two "false" ratings, two "mostly false" ratings and a "half true."

Begich has earned a pair of "mostly true" ratings in addition to his "pants on fire."

The Democrats' most recent claim is that Sullivan's campaign continues to make assertions even after they've been deemed misleading -- a case outlined Thursday night by Zack Fields, the spokesman for the Alaska Democratic Party, in an email with the subject line "What do you do with a candidate who is a pathological liar?"

In his email, Fields included a quote from a recent appearance by Sullivan in Ketchikan, where he repeated a claim that as Alaska's attorney general, he "originally brought" a case against the federal Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory authority over greenhouse gas emissions.

Fields also included a link to an Anchorage Daily News story from February fact-checking the same claim and showing that Alaska was one of a large number of states challenging the EPA's authority. The lead case was actually from a group of power companies -- Alaska's case was incorporated into that challenge.

"Based on his willingness to lie and lie repeatedly, even after being called out ... if there's one thing Alaskans have learned this campaign season it is that Dan Sullivan is a pathological liar who will say anything to advance his own political career," Fields wrote in his email. "If journalists can't keep this (guy) honest, then who's going to?"

Another questionable Sullivan claim is that Begich's vote for the Affordable Care Act led to 5,400 Alaskans getting kicked off their health insurance plans.

Though many Alaskans received cancellation notices last year, the company that sent them ultimately allowed all recipients to extend their coverage -- though that didn't stop Sullivan's campaign from making a post to its Facebook account Thursday saying Begich "cast the deciding vote to kick 5,400 Alaskans off their plans."

Sullivan's campaign, meanwhile, points out that the Begich ad that earned the "pants on fire" from PolitiFact was labeled the worst Democratic attack ad of the year by a Los Angeles Times columnist, and ruled one of Time's five "most dishonest" commercials.

Sullivan's campaign manager, Ben Sparks, noted that the ad was even criticized by left-leaning comedy show host Jon Stewart.

"Mark Begich knows his campaign is in bad shape when Jon Stewart is calling him a liar," Sparks said in a phone interview. "Alaskans are ready to elect Dan Sullivan, who has run his campaign on a platform of results, and not on a platform of desperation like Mark Begich."

Republicans have also cited the FactCheck.org article published Thursday, which found that a vote Begich portrayed as being "against President Obama's trillion dollar tax increase" was actually opposing a GOP political stunt that failed 99 to 0.

And Sparks referred to a recent Alaska poll by right-leaning Fox News in which 53 percent of respondents said Begich was making unfair attacks against Sullivan, compared to just 40 percent who said the same thing about Sullivan's attacks.

A spokesman for Begich, Max Croes, declined to address Sparks' charges by phone and instead responded in an email that "the hallmark of Dan Sullivan's campaign is his dishonesty and his desire to run from his record."

Misleading claims do sometimes seem to draw diminishing amounts of media attention after an initial fact check, said Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth University who's studied misperceptions in politics.

"If there's not countervailing accountability in the press, all you have to do is take that initial hit in that first story and you're flying," Nyhan said in a phone interview. "It has to do with how you define news in the 24/7 media business. Things get old and stale really quickly, according to the standard of the profession.

"The costs aren't high enough if people are continuing to repeat the claim," Nyhan added.

Another problem: the general lack of media scrutiny of politicians' claims in smaller media markets like Alaska.

Nyhan and another academic published a study last year that surveyed nearly 1,200 legislators in nine states with local PolitiFact branches. One-third of the legislators were sent letters reminding them that their claims were liable to checking -- letters that also highlighted the potential effects of negative ratings on re-election campaigns.

The study found that the legislators who got the letters were subsequently much less likely to draw negative PolitiFact ratings than their colleagues.

"Once misinformation's out there it's very hard to counter," Nyhan said. "But making an example of people who promote misinformation and holding them accountable is important for the future."

Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, declined to say whether one candidate had been more or less truthful than the other in the Alaska Senate race. But she added that campaigns sometimes ratchet up their accusations of dishonesty in their final weeks, "in these really outraged and intense moments."

"Usually, that goes to the intensity of the campaign itself, and how long it's gone on," she said. "Everyone's been battling for quite a while -- and they're frustrated, and maybe even tired of each other."

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