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Out of context out of bounds? Not in 2012

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 4:59 PM EDT, Tue September 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Both presidential campaigns are telling "half truths" about the opposing side
  • Creative editing of comments is accepted with a wink and a nod by partisan voters
  • The practice thrives even though media, other groups doing more to challenge campaigns

Washington (CNN) -- The presidential campaigns and their surrogates have gotten away with slicing up quotes and slinging half truths, in part, because those views reinforce what partisan voters want to hear.

President Barack Obama's "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that" comment at a July campaign event was excerpted, slapped on the Internet and flipped into the Republican rallying cry "We Built It."

Obama was actually suggesting many businesses and other enterprises have benefited from government infrastructure.

Mitt Romney's "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what" remark at a secretly recorded fundraiser in May became 'Romney only cares about half of the country' and was used as fodder for an Obama campaign ad.

Tweaking, bending, and embellishing facts have long been part of U.S. politics. It continues today as campaigns barrel toward Election Day even though media outlets and outside groups are dedicating more time and resources to how candidates and campaigns parse and spin their messages.

"What's different this time isn't that they are twisting the facts, it's the tremendous volume of ads that do so," said Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact and Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times. "The ads are wall to wall not just from the Obama and Romney campaigns but also from the super PACs that support each of them."

Partisan politics creates a healthy environment for fact blurring.

"In our increasingly polarized political environment, partisans are increasingly likely to believe what they want to believe. The actual facts apparently matter less and less," said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

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"Much of this tendency is driven by the fact that people who identify with one party increasingly hate the other party. When you can't stand the other side, you are willing to believe just about anything about it, whether it is true or not," said Hetherington.

Why politicians lie and why we want to believe them

People are inclined to believe what they want to believe, said Stanley Renshon, an expert in the psychology of social and political behavior at the City University of New York.

"The basic idea here is if it fits in with the stereotype, it gets some legs," Renshon said. "The truth about stereotypes is there is often some truth in them."

Believe that Obama wants to redistribute wealth?

Romney sure wants you to believe it. During a fundraiser last week, he pointed to a section of a 1998 recording of an Obama speech that the GOP candidate says proves his point.

That point is "mostly true" according to PolitiFact. As an Illinois state senator, Obama did say, "I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot."

PolitiFact also points out that "Obama spoke of redistribution in a way that government can create a level playing field for everyone and encourage competition. The clip of the 1998 audio that Romney referenced to criticize Obama doesn't tell the complete story."

Believe Romney would remove Medicare as guaranteed benefits?

That's what an Obama ad claims as "fact."

That, too, is "mostly true," according to PolitiFact.

"It's plausible that the Romney plan could provide less of a 'guarantee' than Medicare currently does, but we found sharp disagreement between supporters and opponents of Romney's Medicare plan on that point. This disagreement is hard to resolve given the shortage of information Romney has so far provided," the site found.

Questions of truth are not new to presidential campaigns.

Campaign 2012: Smoke and mirrors or outright lies

In fact, Romney grew up watching his father's words twisted.

George Romney's "I had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get" quote about a trip to Vietnam that influenced his decision to switch positions on the war there were taken out of context and helped end his presidential ambitions in the late 1960s, Renshon said.

What Romney, who like his son now was attacked by critics as weak on foreign policy, was saying was: '"I got a briefing that was misleading and because I trusted the people who gave me the briefing it was inaccurate,"' Renshon said.

John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" comment in 2003 about wartime spending legislation was fuel for opponents who characterized him as a flip-flopper in the next year's presidential campaign.

"There may have been a good explanation Kerry could have given," Renshon said. "The tone of it conveys he wants to have it both ways ... that got translated into flip-flopping."

Such out of context attacks have the biggest impact on undecided voters, said Ron Riggio, an organizational psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College.

"For those on the fence, the weight of these attacks might just cause enough pain to register and influence them," Riggio said.

The media is also at fault, political experts say.

"Reporters don't do a very good job of context themselves," Renshon said. Journalists "are generalists. ... On a quick time schedule there's no time to get into it."

The sheer volume of information available on the Internet, both true and bogus, has made the business of adding context and teasing out fact from fiction "more democratic because people have a variety of views fighting it out in the media space," Renshon said, adding that people often use this information to back up views they already hold.

In this type of environment, non partisan fact checking becomes even more important, Adair said.

"There is more fact-checking this year than ever," Adair said. "I think when we look back on this campaign, I think we will say that fact-checkers played an important role in sorting out the truth for people."

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