April 28, 2021

Long before 2003, when Brooks Jackson and I launched FactCheck.org, I stumbled into adjudicating political misrepresentations by happenstance when editors and producers drew me into the 1988 electoral fray because I had written a book titled “Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising.”

Facing off in that presidential contest were Democratic Party nominee Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and incumbent Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush. In “Dirty Politics,” which came out four years later, I termed Bush’s ’88 presidential campaign the dirtiest in the history of the modern U.S. presidency.

The evidence justifying that characterization was easy to come by. A Bush ad (memorable for its repurposing of a helmeted Dukakis circling a field in an M-1 tank) systematically distorted the Democrat’s positions on a range of weapon systems. His campaign’s “revolving door” prison furlough spot invited false inferences about the nature, extent and consequences of “escapes” from the prison furlough program in Massachusetts.

In parallel, the National Security Political Action Committee’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad particularized the issue by blaming Dukakis for the escape of the convict, a person of color, who, after jumping a furlough given him by a Massachusetts prison, raped a white woman and assaulted her white fiance. Not only did that ad traffic in race-based fear but it also misconstrued the crime for which the escapee originally was convicted. (There is no evidence in the court record that Horton himself committed the murder for which he was convicted as an accomplice. He was probably in the getaway car when it occurred.)

At the same time, the ad falsely insinuated that Horton, who was pictured in a menacing shot, would have been executed had Bush instead of Dukakis been Massachusetts governor. The Republican favored the death penalty. The Democrat opposed it. But because the Supreme Court had outlawed the execution of those convicted as accomplices to a murder, the major party nominees’ respective positions on the death penalty had no bearing on Horton’s situation.

At lengths unimaginable in today’s attention-attenuated culture, in fall 1988 I offered context and correction to the ads in venues that included NPR, “Meet the Press” and The Washington Post.” Contrary to the allegations in the Bush “tank” ad, Dukakis did not oppose the stealth bomber. Two hundred and sixty-eight first-degree murderers not eligible for parole had neither escaped while on furlough nor gone on to kidnap and rape.

My two-step M.O. was simple. Flag the problematic claim. Offer a correction.

It was not until my colleagues and I concluded a meta-analysis of the scholarship on correcting misinformation a few years ago that I realized that not only that I had missed a critical first step in 1988 but that the fact-checking model that Jackson and I played a role in institutionalizing in the U.S. often was doing the same. The bottom line is that displacing deception with explanatory detail has a better chance of correcting it than does simple debunking.

Accordingly, before dissecting the deceptions about the Massachusetts furlough regimen in 1988, I should have showcased the evidence that by helping reintegrate individuals into the community, these programs reduced rates of reincarceration. That persistent finding explains why Democratic and Republican leaders alike supported short-term releases (or, to adopt the characterization in the ads, “weekend passes”). Similar policies were in effect in prison systems throughout the United States. They were as well at the federal level under the incumbent  Reagan-Bush administration.

Importantly, the number of escapes in each system was minuscule. As I pointed out in “Dirty Politics,” in Dukakis’s 10 gubernatorial years prior to the 1988 election, 275 of the 76,455 furloughs resulted in escape. Many listed as escapees simply returned a few hours late. Put simply, the benefits outweighed the risks.

The sin of omission that I, the press, and the Democratic campaign all committed had consequences that had nothing to do with the election of George H.W. Bush or defeat of Michael Dukakis. Despite the fact that the chairman of the board of the Texas Department of Corrections admitted, “We really hadn’t had problems,” Texas responded to the “revolving door” inferences and the ads’ allegations (or as he put it — to the Horton case) by reducing “the number of Texas inmates going out on furloughs by more than half.”

Changes occurred in other prison systems as well. The 1995 Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities reported that “(t)he number of regularly scheduled inmate furloughs fell 59% from 28,849 during the year preceding the 1990 census to 11,776 in the year leading up to the 1995 census.”

In 2021, a central issue isn’t whether attack-averse governors will downsize a successful rehabilitation program out of fear that if a rare problem emerges a misinformed electorate will boot them from office. Instead, today’s concerns are driven by the prospect that misconceptions are gulling worrisome numbers into forswearing the protective actions and vaccinations needed to end the pandemic.

In an effort to better arm the public against consequential COVID-19 deceptions, my IFCN-hosted talk on May 12 at 10 a.m. will categorize foundational knowledge about COVID-19 into science-relevant clusters and illustrate how a digest of what science knows about each can proactively reduce susceptibility to hundreds of deceptive COVID-19 claims. A white paper that my APPC colleagues and I will release the same day will reprise the talk and fill in technical details on implementing this proactive, preemptive model of fact-checking.

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Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, director of its Annenberg Public Policy Center and co-founder of FactCheck.org.
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