Harsanyi misled on O'Donnell's Social Security essay, anti-Ritter attack ad

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi misleadingly claimed that 7th Congressional District Democratic candidate Ed Perlmutter's criticism of Republican opponent Rick O'Donnell is "based on a single out-of-context statement." Harsanyi also falsely claimed that "every word" of an ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter for a plea agreement his office reached in a May 2000 hit-and-run case is "true."

In his October 9 column in The Denver Post, David Harsanyi misleadingly claimed that 7th Congressional District Democratic candidate Ed Perlmutter's criticism of Republican opponent Rick O'Donnell is "based on a single out-of-context statement O'Donnell made in his early 20s regarding Social Security." In fact, O'Donnell made his controversial call "to slay the largest government 'entitlement' program of all, Social Security" as part of a sustained argument in a 1995 essay titled, "For Freedom's Sake, Eliminate Social Security." Harsanyi also falsely claimed that "every word" of an ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter for a plea agreement his office reached in a May 2000 hit-and-run case is "true." In fact, the voiceover for the ad "Walked off" falsely claimed the culprit in the incident "served eight months," when she reportedly served 15 months. Another unsubstantiated claim in the ad -- that Ritter "lied and said that [the victim's mother] agreed to a plea bargain" -- has been disputed by Ritter and the Denver District Attorney's office.

Harsanyi did not elaborate on his accusation that Democratic candidate Ed Perlmutter's "campaign strategy, for instance, is largely based on a single out-of-context statement O'Donnell made in his early 20s regarding Social Security." Harsanyi also did not give an example of Perlmutter taking O'Donnell's Social Security statements "out-of-context." Delivering the Democratic Party's weekly radio address on September 23, Perlmutter stated, "In the last 11 years, my opponent, like Republicans in Congress, has demonstrated very dangerous positions on Social Security. In 1995, when he worked for Newt Gingrich, he advocated "slaying" Social Security, and even called it 'un-American.' "

Contrary to Harsanyi's column, such criticisms of O'Donnell's past call to eliminate Social Security are neither "out-of-context" nor "based on a single statement." As Colorado Media Matters noted, the Rocky Mountain News reported July 11 that O'Donnell's essay was titled "For Freedom's Sake, Eliminate Social Security" and that it contained multiple passages calling for an end to the program. The News reported that in the essay, O'Donnell "call[ed] for the abolishment of Social Security" and that he "advocate[d] telling Americans that Social Security 'won't be there for them.' " The News reported that in the essay, O'Donnell wrote, "As we bury the rest of the welfare state in preparation for the 21st century, it is time to slay the largest government 'entitlement' program of all, Social Security." According to the News, O'Donnell's essay further stated: "There is an even more important moral question raised by the government's role as chief provider in old age. ... It sends the un-American message that it is not your responsibility to take care of yourself."

O'Donnell's essay appeared in the February 1995 issue of American Civilization, a publication of then-Speaker of the House Gingrich's (R-GA) Progress and Freedom Foundation. At the time, O'Donnell was serving as editor of the publication.

In claiming that O'Donnell made "a single out-of-context statement" on Social Security, Harsanyi defended O'Donnell using an explanation that appears to conflict with O'Donnell's recent statements. The July 11 News article reported that O'Donnell "said he has since changed his position and wants voters to know, before Democrats slam him, that he now favors fixing Social Security, not abandoning it." As documented by the Talking Points Memo weblog, O'Donnell's campaign recently sent out a direct-mail piece in which he apologized for his essay and acknowledged saying Social Security "should be abolished." O'Donnell now advocates what he calls a "personal Social Security lockbox."

Harsanyi also falsely claimed in his column that "every word" of an ad attacking Ritter was "true." Titled "Walked off," the ad in question was paid for by Coloradans for Justice, a Republican-supporting organization connected to the Trailhead Group, which was founded by Gov. Bill Owens (R), former Colorado Republican Party chairman Bruce Benson, and former Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors. The ad purported to describe -- through voiceover, interviews, and graphics -- how the Denver DA's office under Ritter handled a case in which Sheila Towns struck the family of September Dixon with her car on May 14, 2000, killing Dixon's 4-year-old daughter, Alexis. In a voiceover, the ad falsely claimed that "Towns served eight months."

In the written version of a KUSA 9News Truth Test of "Walked off," reporter Adam Schrager specifically addressed the voiceover's claim that "Towns served eight months. Schrager reported, "The words here are false, but the graphic supporting them is true." Schrager elaborated:

In reality, Towns served seven months in the county jail as her case went through the legal system and then was sentenced to an additional eight months after sentencing. In all, she served 15 months.

The graphic is accurate. It says the words "eight months after sentencing."

Schrager also addressed September Dixon's claim in the ad that Ritter "lied and said that I agreed to a plea bargain that I never agreed to." In contrast to Harsanyi's baseless assumption that Dixon's statement was true, Schrager reported that "there is no way to label it anything other than opinion." Schrager reported that he interviewed Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Alfrey, who was the prosecutor in the case, on September 25. According to Schrager:

Chief Deputy DA Alfrey says he "wouldn't have made that offer unless the family wanted to do it. (Dixon) said it was a good idea." (Source: Alfrey interview with 9NEWS, 9/25/06). Alfrey said he went through the points of the plea deal with Dixon in detail and that she "liked" that Towns pled guilty to each charge, that the sentence agreed to was likely more than she would have received at trial and that Towns was being sent out of state. He told 9News, "September Dixon was and is understandably grief-stricken. No one can fault her for her anger, but the system is set up so (this accident) is not a capital offense. It's not the way it works. We can't put (Towns) away for life."

However, that memo is not being made public and there are no publicly available documents from Towns' case file to indicate either way, making this a statement of opinion, not fact.

From Harsanyi's column "Let negative ads show you the way" in the October 9 edition of The Denver Post:

O'Donnell's question was, of course, completely reasonable. Perlmutter, of all people, should understand that sometimes you have to go negative. His campaign strategy, for instance, is largely based on a single out-of-context statement O'Donnell made in his early 20s regarding Social Security.

Really, we should thank Perlmutter. Since he brought up Social Security, both candidates have been forced to explain their views in detail, resulting in better-informed voters.

"Negative" can often be a positive for voters. We already know candidates will "invest in our future." And don't misunderstand me, I never tire of hearing about the superior parenting skills of political aspirants, but we need more.

Enter the terrifying negative ad.

When the Republican 527 group Coloradans for Justice ran a spot pointing out that Ritter, as Denver district attorney, had issued a "slap on the wrist" to the hit-and-run driver who killed a 4-year- old girl, the bellyaching about negative campaigning revved up.

Was the claim true? Only every word.

In the aftermath, however, Ritter was forced to clarify - or, rather, put into context - his decision. Whether you buy the explanation is one thing, but voters who paid attention now have a clearer understanding of Ritter's record as DA - the only record of public office he owns.

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