“Palin said she was banned from talking about one-time domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, but the record shows the complete and utter opposite.”
—PolitiFact, July 26, 2013
PolitiFact’s conclusion lacks a basis in logic.
On July 26, 2013, PolitiFact published a fact check of a statement by John McCain’s 2008 vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin.
Palin, appearing on the Fox News Channel, said she was banned from talking about candidate Barack Obama’s associations with Reverend Wright and former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers. Palin used the ban as an example of the media’s ability to shield Obama from criticism:
I was banned from talking about Jeremiah Wright and Obama’s friend, Bill Ayers, who is the character that he befriended and kicked off his political campaign in the guy’s living room.
Couldn’t talk about that. Couldn’t talk about Obama’s lack of knowledge and job experience and the things that he said, like America had 57 states, things like that.
In the campaign — Greta, this is important for Americans to understand — I was not allowed to talk about things like that because those elitists, those who are the brainiacs in the GOP machine running John McCain’s campaign at the time, said that the media would eat us alive if we brought up these things
For purposes of its fact check, PolitiFact ignored Palin’s mention of Rev. Wright and focused exclusively on Ayers. The article’s conclusion spells out PolitiFact’s reasoning:
Palin said she was banned from talking about one-time domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, but the record shows the complete and utter opposite. Not only did Palin talk about Ayers, so did the man at the top of the ticket, as did a recorded message from the RNC that went out to voters in battleground states. When the public record and the candidate’s own words speak so strongly against a statement, we have little choice.
We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
Was Palin banned from talking about Ayers? Or did she speak about Ayers during the campaign? Or both?
Analyzing the Rhetoric
PolitiFact argues that if Palin spoke about Ayers then it shows that Palin was not banned from mentioning Ayers by the McCain campaign.
PolitiFact’s method makes a key assumption that leads to a major error in logic.
If Palin was banned from speaking about Ayers at any time during the 2008 campaign, it can support her point that media pressure protected Obama from his association with Wright and Ayers. PolitiFact does hint at considering the possibility at one point late in the fact check:
It’s possible that Palin had wanted to talk about Ayers earlier in the campaign. We reached out to her Political Action Committee for clarification but did not hear back. But her words on Fox News gave no indication of anything but a ban.
PolitiFact presents a confused understanding of the term “ban.” A ban in early September preventing Palin from talking about Ayers is a ban, even if the ban is reversed in late September. PolitiFact seems to gravitate toward the assumption that a “ban” has to mean a prohibition spanning the duration of the campaign. But Palin’s statement is perfectly consistent with a prohibition occurring, for example, in mid October.
An examination of PolitiFact’s listed sources shows that all of its evidence supposedly contradicting Palin’s statement comes from Oct. 18 or earlier. If the McCain campaign banned Palin from mentioning Ayers after Oct. 18 then PolitiFact has zero evidence contradicting her claim.
We surveyed news accounts of the 2008 campaign. Let’s have a look at how the McCain campaign handled mentions of Ayers during the campaign.
Journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote a book giving a popular insider account of the 2008 campaign, including much detail about both the McCain and Obama campaigns. The book, “Game Change,” confirms the McCain campaign’s decision to skirt Obama’s association with Rev. Wright. But the book also describes McCain giving the okay to playing up the association between Obama and Ayers. Further, it records how the campaign later believed its effort to associate Obama with Ayers was failing. The Obama campaign, meanwhile, experimented with Obama attack ads featuring Ayers and Wright—and found them potentially effective:
Dozens of Obama-funded faux negative ads against Obama were produced and tested: about Wright, Ayers, Muslimism, the flag pin—the works. And some were devastatingly effective.
“Game Change” mentions no move by the campaign to keep Palin from mentioning Ayers.
Oct. 4, 2008
Palin makes the campaign’s first overt attempt at connecting Obama to Ayers, saying “Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country” during a rally. Newsweek, in its November analysis of the election, reported Palin went on the attack with the Ayers connection before the campaign had developed its strategy on Ayers:
Palin launched her attack on Obama’s association with William Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber, before the campaign had finalized a plan to raise the issue. McCain’s advisers were working on a strategy that they hoped to unveil the following week, but McCain had not signed off on it, and top adviser Mark Salter was resisting.
It’s unlikely the campaign needed to muzzle Palin on the Ayers connection prior to Oct. 4 given that McCain’s advisers were considering rolling out a strategy connecting Obama to Ayers. It might have made sense to tell Palin to start mentioning Ayers only after the campaign developed its strategy, but in that case the timing doesn’t jibe well with Palin’s implication that a media hedge around Obama influenced the decision.
Of note, The New York Times published a story about Obama’s connection to Ayers on Oct. 3, 2008.
Oct. 5, 2008
The Associated Press wasted little time in suggesting that Palin’s remarks contained a racist subtext:
Her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret.
The Oct. 3 Times story partly substantiated Palin’s claim and hinted at a closer relationship than Obama admitted. Obama had read one of Ayer’s books. How likely is it that he would read a book by Ayers and yet not develop some sort of personal relationship with Ayers while sharing time on a pair of corporate boards?
Isn’t that the type of evidence that begs for added inquiry?
Oct. 10, 2008
The McCain campain launches a Web ad attacking Obama’s association with Ayers.
Oct. 13, 2008
McCain announces a new toned-down campaign strategy:
Though slumping in the polls, McCain attempted to reset his campaign strategy yet again with a new stump speech that eased back on harsh attacks against Democratic opponent Barack Obama and vowed an underdog-style comeback in the final three weeks of the White House race.
Was there a decision to drop the Ayers attacks?
Oct. 16, 2008
CBS reports robocalls using Ayers attacks coming from the McCain campaign.
Oct 17, 2008
CBS News’ Scott Conroy reports Palin has started connecting Obama to ACORN and no longer mentions Ayers during rallies.
Conroy expands on the story later that day:
Though she continues to hammer Obama on a daily basis on issues ranging from alleged voter registration fraud to taxes, Palin has stopped mentioning Obama’s relationship to 1960s radical William Ayers on the stump. The Alaska governor told reporters that it’s now up for the public to decide whether that relationship is relevant.
“Well, I think that American voters are understanding that association—that it’s OK to talk about fact,” she said. “Of course, Barack Obama had been bringing it up, even in challenging John McCain on that, saying if you want to talk about it, talk about it, too, so McCain did that, and the association is out there. It’s up now to the people of America to decide whether that association is important enough to them to research and find out more about a person’s judgment and truthfulness.”
While Palin does not at this point say that the McCain campaign told her to stop mentioning Ayers, her response is consistent with the type of public explanation we would expect if the campaign told her to drop her mentions of the Ayers connection.
The issue lives on, however, as the robocalls continue and journalists ask questions of the candidates.
Oct. 18, 2008
Palin tells a Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer that she would not walk back her statement that Obama “palled around” with Ayers. The interview airs on Oct. 20.
Oct. 20, 2008
Ayers not a legitimate issue in the election?
ABC News publishes the results of a poll of likely voters. The poll includes a question asking whether Obama’s association with “William Ayres [sic]” is a legitimate election issue. ABC’s story on the poll leads with the Ayers angle:
More challenges for John McCain: Likely voters overwhelmingly reject his effort to make an issue of Barack Obama’s association with 1960s radical William Ayers.
We should note that the misspelling of Ayers’ name is irrelevant to the results of the poll. As the survey was done by phone, spelling wouldn’t matter so much as pronunciation.
Oct. 21 through Election Day
We found no evidence that Palin returned to mentioning Ayers in her stump speeches, though we did find instances of McCain and Palin mentioning him in their answers to journalists’ questions.
The overall timeline indicates that Palin led off the McCain campaign’s Ayers attacks, which lasted roughly two weeks in the campaign rhetoric before getting relegated to robocalls and interview answers. It’s plausible that Palin was instructed by the campaign not to bring up Ayers in speeches or interviews. The historical record does not, contrary to PolitiFact’s claim, run against Palin’s report that the campaign banned her from mentioning Ayers.
Further, Palin’s statement need not be taken as a strict ban on mentioning Ayers by name. It makes sense, in context, to understand Palin to mean she was banned from describing facts about the connection between Ayers and Obama, beyond the strategy McCain preferred of simply saying Obama should tell the truth about the relationship.
“Palin said she was banned from talking about one-time domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, but the record shows the complete and utter opposite.”
The historical record is consistent with Palin’s claim if we allow for the fact that campaign principals such as McCain or Palin do not admit at the time when campaign managers alter campaign strategy. We do not know whether the McCain campaign banned Palin from mentioning Ayers, but we do know that PolitiFact presents no good evidence contradicting her claim. PolitiFact’s reasoning doesn’t follow, resembling the black or white fallacy: either Palin was banned from talking about Ayers during the campaign or Palin talked about Ayers during the campaign. The record allows for both.
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