Falsehoods Fly Fast and Furious in Political Ads

It's a striking claim: Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller will "destroy a third of Alaska's economy" if he gets elected by erasing "our fair share of federal dollars."

And like many political ads, it carries with it only the faintest whiff of the truth. While Miller does support less federal spending in Alaska and elsewhere, the ads' claims go "way beyond what the facts support," as FactCheck.org reports.

And therein lies the trick of much of the political advertising you're seeing on television these days: Admakers craft spots by "taking a small germ of truth and twisting it" for maximum political impact, as PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair puts it. (Here's one good example.) By the time the commercial airs, viewers get fed the striking claims, but not the dubious connections and unsupported logical jumps it took to reach them.

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The flood of political advertising on television these days makes it virtually impossible for news organizations or independent groups to come up with a comprehensive database of which ads do or do not reflect the truth. But two men at the forefront of the effort to bring accountability to political advertising - PolitiFact.com's Adair and FactCheck.org's Brooks Jackson - say there are distortions from both sides that regularly pop up across the country. The websites overseen by Adair and Jackson have rated hundreds of ads for their truthfulness in the 2010 campaign cycle.

"We tend to see certain claims over and over again," says Jackson. Asked for an example, both he and Adair pointed to a charge by Republicans that Democrats want to cut Medicare benefits or "gut" the program.

That, they say, is a serious exaggeration. The claim is usually tied to the health care overhaul legislation, and while that legislation does reduce the future growth of payments to hospitals and the Medicare Advantage program, it does not cut core Medicare benefits.

Republicans and their supporters are far from alone in making dubious claims. For the most part, Adair says, claims by Democrats and their backers that a Republican candidate wants to privatize Social Security rate as "barely true" on the PolitiFact ratings scale, which classifies ads at six different levels, ranging from "true" to "pants on fire."

And Jackson says that anytime a Republican "has uttered even a noncommittal remark about this FairTax proposal, they get an ad saying they are going to slap a 23 percent tax upon everything you buy." That claim carries the implication that the FairTax would be assessed on top of the taxes people already pay - when in fact it is an alternative to federal income taxes.

Both men say they have not found patterns suggesting that one party or the other is more prone to distortion. But there has been one pattern that they both identify: Outside groups, which are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections this year (largely on behalf of Republicans), are most likely to stretch or ignore the truth on their advertising. These groups, which have exploded in size and influence in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, are often funded by donors whose identities are not revealed to the public.

"The records for these outside groups is really dismal," says Adair. "Overwhelmingly they are exaggerating and distorting with their ads." Of the 31 claims in outside groups' ads that PolitiFact has checked out, just five were been found to be true.

One of the worst offenders has been American Crossroads and its arm Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-affiliated groups spending tens of millions of dollars to help Republican candidates in the midterm elections. As FactCheck.org detailed here, the groups have run misleading or false ads against candidates in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Nevada, Missouri and New Hampshire.

Candidates have little recourse when it comes to addressing less-than-truthful ads. The First Amendment's free speech requirements give politicians "a legal right to lie to you just about as much as they can get away with," as Jackson puts it. And a federal truth-in-political advertising law would be difficult to enforce - there is enough ambiguity in political ads to make it very difficult to reduce them to "true" or "false," and the potential punishment for running a "false" ad is an open question.

There is always the option of suing for libel, as Barry Goldwater did after a magazine labeled him emotionally unstable and worse - but libel is difficult to prove and, more importantly, an election would likely be over by the time a case was resolved. Since a court isn't going to overturn an election, any victory from such a suit would be moral and little more.

That leaves it to the media and independent groups to inform the public about which ads are not telling people the truth. "My job is not to get candidates to stop making falsehoods, nor is it to persuade voters," says Adair. "My job is to give voters the information they need." But since many ads never get fact checked - and most of us don't bother to go online to read up on the small percentage that do - misinformation ends up influencing voters, particularly when they are hit with it in ads over and over again.

"I'm sure that a lot of it is believed," says Jackson. "People get upset when we challenge some of these things. And people want to believe these ads. If you're a strong partisan you don't want to hear that what your guy is saying is factually incorrect."

Neither Adair or Jackson would say whether the problem is worse that it has been in the past -- though the record-breaking levels of television advertising this campaign cycle has meant more ads, and with them, presumably, more distortions. (Quips Jackson, on his inability to measure the percentage of falsehoods compared to past years: "At this point it's like drinking from a fire hose.")

What they can tell you is that a vote based on an uncritical acceptance of claims in campaign ads is probably going to be less than informed.

"Any voter who assumes a political TV ad is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is making a very risky assumption," says Jackson. "And they might well cast a vote that is based on completely wrong information. Because there is a lot of completely wrong information out there."


Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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