By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Pro-Obama cancer ad may be sleazy, but it’s not “false”

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The Paul Ryan announcement has made Joe Soptic seem like yesterday’s news. But before we let go, I want to take a look at a truly miserable job of fact-checking done by on the pro-Obama ad in which Soptic appears to blame his wife’s death from cancer on Mitt Romney.

My purpose is not to defend the ad, produced by Priorities USA, a Super PAC aligned with President Obama. I agree with just about everyone that it’s over the top, though I take it as kind of a warning shot for Romney to ease up on his own false claims (see this and this for recent examples).

Last December, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the downside of the explosion in fact-checking. FactCheck’s attempt to knock down the Soptic ad is a good example of what I found troubling about the phenomenon. I would have no problem with calling it a toxic bit of sleaze, because it is. But false? Not by any standards I’m aware of. Essentially, the ad omits the sort of factual statements that could be subjected to a binary true/false test.

The FactCheck fact-check, by Robert Farley (click here and scroll down for bio), is rife with distortions. Let me take a few.

First, and most important, FactCheck is sticking with its insistence that Romney had nothing to do with Bain Capital in February 2002, when Bain pulled the plug on the steel mill where Soptic worked. (The back story on the plant closing, reported by Reuters last January, is well worth reading.) “As we’ve reported before, when the plant closed Romney was running the 2002 Winter Olympics,” Farley instructs us.

But as the Boston Globe and others have reported, Romney — who says he left Bain in 1999 — was chief executive of the company until well into 2002. Whether he was hands-on or not, he was in charge and he benefited financially from the decision that left Soptic unemployed.

The idea that Romney shouldn’t be held accountable because he was running the Olympics is mystifying. As someone else said (I wish I had the link), imagine that Obama owned an apartment building in Chicago, and that rats and cockroaches were discovered there. Do you think anyone would be inclined to let him off the hook because he was an absentee landlord and had hired a manager to look after the property?

FactCheck’s Farley also finds the ad “misleading” because Ranae Soptic “didn’t lose coverage when the plant closed. Mr. Soptic told CNN that she lost her own employer-sponsored coverage a year or two later. She had no coverage after that.”

Seriously? This isn’t hard, folks. If Joe Soptic hadn’t lost his health insurance after Bain shut down the plant where he worked, his wife could have slid over onto his coverage after she lost hers — assuming she wouldn’t have been rejected for having a pre-existing condition. I have absolutely no idea what point Farley even thinks he’s making.

Finally, Farley wants us to know that the ad is “misleading” because Mrs. Soptic “died in 2006 — five years after the plant closed.” Good Lord. I’m not even going to attempt to comment on that except to point out that uninsured people tend to let things go.

Interestingly enough, the ad has never even appeared on television as an ad, but it’s been shown numerous times for free so critics could denounce it. That’s cost-effective advertising.

Voters should feel free to judge the candidates on the tenor of their campaigns. Fact-checking has its purposes. But it has real limits as well.

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  1. Mike Rice

    How many workers at General Motors lost their job/health insurance when the Obama administration restructed that corporation in order to save it?

  2. People are so obsessed with insurance, but rarely do we hear about the importance of prevention.

    I don’t know about the causes of Mrs. Soptic’s cancer, whether it occurred from a genetic predisposition, or external environmental factors of no fault of her own, or from her own behaviors.

    But for many people cancer can be avoided by not consuming harmful substances, and instead eating healthy foods with antioxidants and taking extra vitamins and antioxidant supplements.

    Amerika is an immediate-gratification society now, in which many people treat their bodies like garbage, and assume that their employers, insurance companies or the government will take care of them when something happens. Don’t rely on any of those. Think in the long-term, be responsible for your own life and act preventively.

  3. Rick Peterson

    @Mike: are you counting Delphi employees? Oh right, those 20,000 people and their benefits don’t count, they’re not a voting block. I also don’t recall any lingering PR about the white collar employees of Polaroid who were screwed out of their pensions. Because we know that all union employees are poor and all salaried, exempt employees are rich, right? Now we are expected to tell M&A firms that before they consider turning around failing firms, they need to take on additional obligations if they fail beyond those dictated by the (government)Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Yep, they will be lined up to save firms like Mr. Soptic’s employer, I’m sure.
    BTW, DK, I’m pretty sure that President Obama would prefer that we not go there (Chicago). They’re having kind of a tough summer.

  4. Glen Bergendahl

    The more interesting aspect of this story is that Team Obama lied about knowing nothing about the couple in the ad. Obama campaign staffer Stephanie Cutter is heard on a conference call with the bereaved this past May.

    This constitutes collusion with a 527 group and is illegal. Had there been proof of said collusion between the Romney campaign and a 527, the bray from the left would be deafening.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Glen: Eh, probably not. First of all, the Obama campaign official who said the campaign didn’t know anything about Soptic probably blurted that out without checking first, not realizing they actually had made use of him. Second, Soptic has been all over cable and the tubes for months, and is the star of that Reuters story I linked to. Would not have taken a genius for the Super PAC to figure out he might be a good guy to put in an ad.

  5. Glen Bergendahl

    @ Dan: Eh, probably not. “Probably blurted that out” is a giant leap on your part. I choose to deal in reality. Sorry to intrude.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Glen: Please explain how it is that I’m speculating and you’re not. Do you have a source in the Obama campaign? You’re guessing too, my man.

  6. Glen Bergendahl

    The audio of the conference call featuring Mr. Soptic and Stephanie Cutter from May has been played time and again on talk radio. Just because it isn’t covered in the liberal media doesn’t mean it did not occur.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Glen: Yes, thank you for telling us something we already know. The point is that you’ve accused the Obama campaign of lying, which you have no way of knowing. As Politico, which broke the story, put it, the campaign failed to check its own archives.

  7. Glen Bergendahl

    After the ad aired, the very same Stephanie Cutter denied knowing the details of Mrs Spotic’s illness during an interview on CNN. The conference call and subsequent denial show both coordination and disingenuousness. I do, nonetheless, appreciate your sniffy response.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Glen: People lie if they think they can get away with it. Logically, Cutter was almost certainly not lying, since if she was she knew she would be exposed immediately.

  8. Mike Benedict

    I think it’s fair to ask whether Romney, for all his alleged business acumen, has ever created a job. Seems to me like he wants to take credit for saving jobs, which is the same position the GOP has ridiculed Obama for.

  9. Bill Duncliffe

    Well, Dan, it’s good you weren’t around in the early ’70’s. I can hear it now “What possible reason would President Nixon have for lying? He’s going to drill McGovern anyway. C’mon Carl, Bob. Let’s stop wasting time.”

  10. Glen Bergendahl

    You’re right Dan.

    The Obama Camp would never lie. Just yesterday, Debbie Wasserman – Schultz “had no idea” of the party affilliation of those responsible for the attack ad. Today, the president lied in Iowa. He claimed Paul Ryan stands in the way of a Farm Bill passing the House. Said bill passed the House two weeks ago.

    Innocent mistakes both.

    But I’m sure I’m telling you something you already knew.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Glen: Good grief. Seriously? Read and learn. The House is blocking the Senate version of the farm bill from becoming law. Truth.

  11. Glen Bergendahl


    Thank you for enlightening me on something I was already aware of. Did you read the last paragraph or just do the “La, la, la, la” bit and glaze and graze over it?

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Uh, @Glen? You said Obama lied about the farm bill. The third paragraph from the end would seem pertinent:

    Though a version of the farm bill passed the Senate, Republican leaders in the House chose not to hold a vote because of GOP opposition to farm subsidy and food stamp funding in the bill. Ryan is among the Republican leaders supporting cuts to food stamps.

    This too:

    Republican [House] leaders were unable to muster enough support for even a one-year extension of the law and instead passed a short-term drought-relief measure, the first time the House has failed to bring its own farm bill to the floor. The Senate, which had passed its own version by a healthy bipartisan margin, declined to take up the short-term House bill, and Congress left town in a stalemate.

    Ah, yes. It’s the Democratic Senate’s fault for not bailing out the House leadership from its own dysfunction. And Obama lied!

  13. Steve Rhode

    Dan – thanks for taking Fact Check to task for their ludicrous insistence that Romney was completely disassociated from Bain after 1999!

  14. Steve Rhode

    The more pertinent observation – as discussed on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, is that both campaigns seem to have decided that the fact checkers are irrelevant. The goal seems to have moved away from convincing undecideds to move in your direction, and towards making sure that your supporters are outraged enough by the other side to come out and vote on 11/6/12.

  15. Glen Bergendahl

    I once again stand corrected. The Obama administration never lies.

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