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


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 FactCheck.org 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.