False Facts: Why Conservative Groups Hope You Won’t Check Their Sources

Mitt Romney’s citation of “six studies” confirming his claims about his tax plan has unraveled rather completely at this point. When a candidate makes that kind of claim, it receives deserved scrutiny, and fact checkers rightly shredded the Republican’s line. But the evidence offered by conservative outside groups in political ads receive much less attention, despite being a near-constant presence in voters’ lives on television, radio, and the web.

The network of outside-money conservative groups we monitor often don’t bother trying to ground their claims in objective truth. Some of their most effective TV ads rely on debatable interpretations of legislation or public statements, and many simply deprive the viewer of context in order to mislead. Others cite only a piece of legislation or a floor vote, while making un-cited claims about what that vote or law meant for voters. But these well-heeled organizations tend to get themselves in trouble when they cite more specific studies or news reports to support their claims.

Sometimes, the mistaken citations are so egregious that they must be intentional. When Crossroads GPS accused Heidi Heitkamp of spending public funds on private planes, it cited a North Dakota newspaper article that completely contradicted the claim. (The group modified the ad without actually dropping the false claim about airplanes, after getting a warning from one TV station.) Crossroads GPS was back at it this week, this time in Maine. As the narrator accuses former Gov. Angus King of turning a surplus “into a nearly $1 billion shortfall,” a citation pops up on screen from a Maine newspaper. The piece in question appears to be an op-ed dedicated to debunking the very claim Crossroads is making about King’s record, by a former state budget official who calls their version of events “a lie.”

This kind of brazen misrepresentation of a source is not as uncommon as you might think. Just since August 1, we’ve identified 16 separate ads that cite a source that actually says the opposite of what the ad suggests, including one that accuses a Texas Democrat of casting votes he simply did not.

The most common opposite-day citation? A study by the research firm Ernst & Young, commissioned by Republican-boosting business groups, that actually says in a footnote that it is not an analysis of the president’s actual proposal on taxes. Still, in eight separate ads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Crossroads groups have claimed that the president’s tax ideas would kill jobs, citing reports on the Ernst & Young study. Two of the ads splash the topline number from that study – 700,000 lost jobs – up on the screen. But a footnote in the report acknowledges that “Using the additional revenue to reduce the deficit is not modeled,” even though that’s what the White House has proposed.

These up-is-down citations are a different breed from what Mitt Romney did with his “six studies” claim that broke down primarily due to partisan bias, but that kind of trickery is common in TV ads too. Often, the Chamber and the Rove groups cite the NFIB and ATR, each of which has received Crossroads GPS funding and actively coordinated their efforts with other outside-money groups. We’ve fact-checked many ads that rely on partisan sources, but two stand out – one in Nevada and one back in North Dakota.

In Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District, Crossroads GPS cited erroneous reporting from the right-wing Nevada Journal to accuse Democrat Steven Horsford of robbing a scholarship fund of $4.2 million. (Jon Ralston, one of the most prominent journalists in the state, said the episode indicates the think tank behind the Nevada Journal is now “a partisan hit squad,” but voters seeing this ad would never know it unless they took the time to look.) In North Dakota, another Crossroads GPS ad accusing Heitkamp of corruption was based primarily on citations to another legit-sounding publication, the Plains Daily. That turns out to be the pet project of right-wing radio host Scott Hennen. When Crossroads GPS claims Heitkamp “refus[ed] to answer questions” about the matter, they were lying – she answered questions from the Grand Forks Herald, she just didn’t call the right-wing website back.

It may not be as exciting to scrutinize TV ads as it is to examine a candidate’s rhetoric. But given the constant presence of the conservative groups and their allies in voter’s lives, and the flagrant willingness of these groups to misrepresent what journalists and academics have actually written, fact checkers ought to spend as much energy chasing down outside ads’ sources as they do Mitt Romney’s.