NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And now, the Opinion Page. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes famously carried a lantern in daylight in hopes of finding an honest man. In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Kathleen Hall Jamieson embarked on an even more changeling quest: a search for an honest politician. Now more than ever, she wrote, with a public highly anxious about the economy and worn down after years of promises that things would get better, the time is ripe for a candid candidate.
So why it is - why is it so hard for politicians to be open about our problems and their solutions? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Kathleen Hall Jamieson joins us by phone from Hawaii. She's director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which runs FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org. Nice to have you back with us.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It's good to be back.
CONAN: And you write to win over the public honesty in 2012, a presidential aspirant would tell us things we need to hear but don't want to.
JAMIESON: That's correct.
CONAN: There's an awful lot of things we don't necessarily want to hear, for example, President Obama saying, well, you know, we'd have to raise taxes on the wealthy if we're going to help close the budget deficit.
JAMIESON: And we're going to have to find revenues beyond the wealthy in order to balance the budget. The consensus across the experts that looked at this is that we're not going to be able to do this simply by increasing revenues alone or by spending cuts alone. We're going to have to do both, and it's important to recognize that and to say that that's going to affect the middle class. It needs to in the long term because for the well-being and future generations that's what we've got to do.
CONAN: And yet, you also note that there's a cautionary tale in the history books, and that is, of course, Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate back in 1984 who addressed the Democratic convention.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you, I just did.
CONAN: Mr. Mondale got a big hand at the convention. He got walloped come November.
JAMIESON: He did, but not because he told the truth. That is, Reagan did raise taxes, and Mondale would have, but because the Republican ads successfully argued - successfully by which I mean people believed that what Mondale was going to do was not use the money that he would raise to pay down the deficit, but instead he would use it for more spending. And voters are inclined to believe things that are consistent with what they think is true about the party. Voters think Democrats are likely to spend on social programs. So that was the deception the audience was willing to believe, and that was more influential and hurting Mondale than anything they said that was honest.
CONAN: So his honesty was turned against him, and then you have the situation these days where it's not just the rival candidate who might turn your words against you, but, well, a lot of his allies - the superPACs.
JAMIESON: And that's a phenomenon this year that we should worry about. We looked at the top spending third-party groups through June 1, and what we found was these are the - first, the (c)(4) groups, the groups that don't have to disclose. And we found a very high level of deception. More than 80 percent of the dollars spent by those ads, those advertisers were spent on ads that contained at least one deceptive statement, deception defined by the fact-checking organizations. And when we looked at the top spending superPACs plus Apps Me(ph) during the primaries through Wisconsin, what we found was over 50 percent of the dollars spent contained - were spent for ads containing at least one deception.
Third-party ads more deceptive than candidate ads historically, but television stations have a right to reject those ads. They don't have to air them at all. And if they air them, they can insist on accuracy. If they were to do that, we could dampen down that deception. It's going to be the greatest source of deception this year, and those station managers have control. You want to email your stations to tell them to please do that, station managers, go to FlackCheck.org. It just takes a minute.
CONAN: There is - are there any examples in the modern era of broadcast advertising, radio and television, of campaigns that did not resort to distortions?
JAMIESON: The 1960 and 1980 campaigns - the '60 campaign elects John Kennedy. The '80 campaign elects Ronald Reagan are free of serious deceptions about the opposing the candidate or about the plans of the ultimate winner. So within memory, although not recent, recent memory, we've had campaigns that were conducted in a fair and forthright fashion.
CONAN: I remember the 1960 campaign. I remember reading about the 1960 campaign.
CONAN: I was a child at that time.
JAMIESON: You remember the 1960 campaign.
CONAN: But there was the famous missile gaff, which, of course, during that not to be true.
JAMIESON: But Kennedy apparently thought that it was, and there is historical evidence that he was surprised to learn that it wasn't. And so, you can't really fault him for campaigning if the evidence that he had available suggested that it was an accurate claim. That's the one exception I note in the op-ed. I say, know that that was an instance in which, in retrospect, we know that wasn't true. But we don't know that he knew that at that time.
CONAN: And you cite Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter back in 1980, yet we just mentioned Walter Mondale. Ronald Reagan apparently changed his mind four years later.
JAMIESON: Well, the campaign discourse and the advertising in '80 is actually exemplary in its accuracy, but also for a second reason. Ronald Reagan in 1980 engaged in longer forms of communication with the electorate. And what I argue in the op-ed piece in The Washington Post is those longer forms are the way in which you bind the electorate to the kind of governance that you're going to offer. And this year, with the tough choices we're facing, it's important that candidates are candid about them and that we don't penalize them for their candor.
In order to be candid with us, they're going to have to have longer forms of communication. We're going to have the substantive debates with a good moderator follow up. We're going to have the fact-checking that continues to be aggressive at the national and state level, particularly in those battleground states, and stations are going to have insist on accuracy of those third-party ads.
You put all those things together, and I think we create a climate in which the candid candidate cannot only win, but by winning that way will be empowered to govern in a different way, a way that doesn't carry the immediate penalty of risk of losing whatever you've gained in the off-year election.
CONAN: They would carry a - you have a better mandate is what you're saying.
JAMIESON: They would have a clearer mandate, and the public wouldn't feel betrayed by being exposed to a campaign in which they never heard the tough choices articulated, and as a result are surprised when the president acts on them. So to the extent that we have to make these choices - Governor Romney will make them, President Obama will make them - and they are going to be unpleasant choices, they're better off and we're better off if we know that before we vote rather than after. Why else have an election if it's not going to forecast governance?
CONAN: Yet, it would be a rare candidate who would take out half hour of national political airtime to explain the castor oil he's going to deliver if elected.
JAMIESON: Well, actually, Ross Perot did it in '92, and he got national audiences that were, in some cases, larger than the program he displaced on television. And in 2008, Barack Obama did deliver a half-hour successfully. He gained a very large national audience, and he aired a cross channels simultaneously to increase that audience. Now, he wasn't telling us that we had faced, awful alternative choices, but he was forecasting what he wanted to do as president. I think, in this election year, what those two instances, '94 and - '92 and 2008 tell us is the electorate would listen if candidates took the risk to talk to us at greater length.
CONAN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, "Looking for an Honest Politician." Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Why is it politicians have so much difficulty being candid? Let's begin with Bob, and Bob's on the line with us from Suffern, New York.
BOB: Yes. And the reason politicians have so much difficulty being candid is we do not want to hear the truth. What we want to hear is rhetoric that conforms to our prejudice because no politician gets elected in America by telling the people the truth. And you have organized opposition to the truth in the form of the Republican initiatives against global warming, the Republican initiative about teach the controversy between creationism and evolution. I mean, it's all nonsense, but you got significance segments of a population that sign on to it because they just do not want to hear the truth.
CONAN: It might be fair to characterize some of those groups as conservative, Bob, but to say they're Republican...
BOB: No, no. It's not just...
CONAN: To say the Republican is - they're not associated with the Republican Party, but, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, there's one of the fact checks, I guess.
JAMIESON: Yeah. The - well, I'm - I was one of the co-founders of the FactCheck.org. It's run by my policy center. And one of the things that we believe is true is that the - there is a knowable world out there that reasonable people can agree to and that one can cut through the spin to get to that. I believe we have with Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici. In both of those cases, you have distinguished experts across the aisle agreeing that there is a serious problem, agreeing that we've got to increase the amount of revenue, and we've got to find places to cut, and that we've got to do that in a way that doesn't tank the economy.
So to the extend that someone this year says, there's a free lunch. We can just grow our way out. Or we can just get rid of waste, fraud and abuse and not make any of those sacrifices, that - those people need to be told the knowable world as best as we can assess it, using the expert elites who study this for a living says that that's just not true. And to the extent that politicians are held accountable when they make statements like that and ask, well, show us where you're going to get all that waste, fraud and abuse from, show us that and if you actually can simply grow your way out of this problem because it doesn't appear to be the case. We will increase the likelihood that they will be candid about what the options actually are.
CONAN: Well, to be fair to Bob...
JAMIESON: (Unintelligible) the alternative.
CONAN: To be fair to Bob, our caller, he was calling about more values issues. He was talking about, well, Darwinism. We can argue about that, but let's take the issue of gay marriage. There's no numbers you can add up saying, this makes it clear that this is the situation. It's a matter of - for a lot of people, it's a matter of faith. And for a lot of people, it's a matter of belief.
JAMIESON: And my argument is not about any of those issues. I think that, you know, the area in which I think we need to have candor for voters is statement about what the candidate would do about those. So what is the candidate's position on the issue? And that should be the position that the candidate acts on once elected.
I think on gay marriage, at the moment at least, we know what the two candidates' positions are on the issue. We don't know whether it's going to change across time but at the moment I think we know. But more importantly, because of the nature of the constraints that we face financially with the debt crisis, I think we ought to be asking what is knowable economically, and what are the things we need to be told about sacrifices that need to be made to ensure economic viability and to ensure that we can preserve social programs that we value and the level of defense that we're willing to pay for.
CONAN: We're talking with Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the opinion page. There's a link to her op-ed at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Justin. Justin on the line with us from Philadelphia.
JUSTIN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Great conversation so far. The previous caller talked about people listening based on their biases. I just want to add something complementary to that. Political realities are very complicated. And when you're communicating those realities to non-experts, i.e., the vast majority of the population, you have to simplify them. And in simplification of something inherently complicated is distortion by definition. And I think that's why a lot of these troubles begin.
When you're - when politicians operate in an environment in which they essentially have to lie to us just to do their jobs even if their intentions are completely honest because most people don't even want to try to understand the sophisticated realities that the politicians are dealing with. And I think that's why there's - there are all these selection pressures, to use a Darwinian term, in favor of, you know, lying and obfuscating and simplifying and, you know, telling all these half-truths and such. (Unintelligible) get some feedback on that.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Kathleen Hall Jamieson?
JAMIESON: That's a really important. One of the things we know about how the public in general learns is that when an expert consensus emerges, the public doesn't have to understand all of the ins and outs of how the conclusion was reached. If the public comes to understand that it is an expert consensus, the public does tend to accept it. I think we've got an expert consensus with Rivlin-Domenici and Simpson-Bowles.
We saw 2008, in summer, when Senator McCain and Senator Clinton were both favoring a gas tax holiday, and Senator Obama was opposing it the emergence of an elite consensus position that was nationally telegraphed - we were studying it through the National Annenberg Election Survey, which is the largest survey that the academy was doing of the electorate, that we were watching in real time as public opinion reacted to their positions.
Lay opinion, lay logic would tell you, drop the gas tax, and you're going to see lower prices at the pump - don't necessarily, however, get that because sometimes, the companies just take that money and hold it. And as a result, you don't see the drop. And lay logic wouldn't ordinarily realize that that money for the gas tax pays for the infrastructure that keeps our transportation system going.
So initially, you would have guessed that the McCain-Clinton position, in favor of the reduction of gas tax, would be popular in public opinion. Initially, it was. But as the media began to communicate that no economists thought it was a bad position, thought they wouldn't necessarily see the drops they would actually - they thought they were going to see in the cost of gas tax, the public shifted to say, no, they didn't think the gas tax holiday was a good idea. They didn't necessarily get all the ins and outs. They got the expert conclusion. We can, in other words, create an informational base for the public, as we discuss complex economic matters that don't necessarily rely on the public understanding all the complexities.
What's the expert opinion? There is a problem. It can't be solved by revenues alone or cuts alone. We have to have both, and it's going to involve the middle class.
CONAN: One last caller. Jay(ph) is one the line with us from Eaton Rapids in Michigan?
JAY: That's correct.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JAY: The only Eaton Rapids in the world.
CONAN: OK. Go ahead, please.
JAY: I actually blame reporters. I blame the media. Your program's great. Macneil-Lehrer is great. But most reporters are idiots and don't ask hard questions. I don't have any stupid friends. I have uninformed friends who don't have time to drill down as far as I do to get to issues. But when you have reporters - my local newspaper is the - covers the state capital of Michigan. It's again that paper, and they can't get - they can't report correctly on a local lemonade stand.
JAY: If they can't get the facts right out of a local lemonade stand, how the heck can they get the facts right on anything else?
CONAN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, you argue persuasively that reporters do have to ask some tough questions.
JAMIESON: And without a strong press, we're not going to have an informed electorate. The - we need to have fact-checking, and there is good fact-checking at the national level. Now, local newspapers can simply pick it up if they want to use it. Particularly in the battleground states in presidential ads, there are four major groups doing it right now, and they often agree. Most of the time, they agree.
But also, there's one other source of very valuable information, and in general, it translates well into English. If you watch the Sunday interview shows, whenever a candidate or a candidate's surrogate is on, you see some of the nation's best journalists holding them accountable and also trying to make sure that the alternative point of view is clearly articulated. We can then trace viewership of those shows, viewership of debates, the single most useful information vehicle we have in campaigns, and increase the viewership of media that tries aggressively to still maintain balance and fairness. We could increase the level of information even in the states of journalism, which, yes, I agree with the caller, sadly at the local level is often eroding.
CONAN: Jay, thanks very much for the kind words. We appreciate the phone call as well. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thanks very much for your time.
JAMIESON: You're welcome.
CONAN: This is the NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.