MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
So while the funders of these attack ads often remain hidden, the truth in the ads can also be elusive. Bill Adair is editor of the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact.com, and we check in with him from time to time for a dose of truth.
Welcome back to the program.
BILL ADAIR: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And, Bill, you've been looking at the accuracy of claims made in attack ads from these independent groups we've been hearing about. What have you found?
ADAIR: Well, it's a really dismal record for accuracy. When you look at these groups, nearly 80 percent of the claims that we've checked from their ads are half true or lower on our Truth-O-Meter. They really have a pattern of taking a little kernel of truth and exaggerating it or twisting it.
BLOCK: The ratings can go from half true on down barely truthful or pants on fire.
ADAIR: Pants on fire, our lowest rating. We've had a couple of those from the groups, too.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, let's listen to part of one ad. This is an ad aimed at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada. This is an ad from the group American Crossroads, a conservative political advocacy group that's raised a lot of money. It was started by Karl Rove, among others. Let's listen to the ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
H: Harry Reid claims to be helping the job situation. Really, Harry? Recent data show Nevada ranks 50th in the money received from Harry's stimulus bill. That's right.
BLOCK: Well, Bill Adair, what kind of rating did you give that?
ADAIR: Yeah. We give that one false on our Truth-O-Meter. The data they were using was just way out of date. And we've noticed a pattern where they'll start with something that's either old or outdated, and then twist it in big ways. So that one got a false on our Truth-O-Meter.
BLOCK: So recent data depends on what you mean by recent.
BLOCK: We've been talking about new groups such as American Crossroads here that have emerged recently. You've also looked at ads though from party groups, and here's one from the Democratic Governors Association. It's an ad attacking the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
Unidentified Man #2: Twenty-five years as a politician changes you. You think injecting 11- and 12-year-old girls with a controversial drug without a parent's consent is a good idea?
BLOCK: Injecting girls with a drug without a parent's consent. They're talking about the HPV vaccine here.
ADAIR: Exactly. This one got our lowest rating: pants on fire. It's just ridiculously false. There's nothing to back up the claim in this ad. Perry did issue an order that would mandate that vaccine for girls, but parents were allowed to opt out. And so it's just ridiculously false to say that it would be against a parent's wishes.
BLOCK: Bill, if you're looking at the independent groups that we mentioned, there is a real imbalance here because the vast majority of the money being spent by these groups is being spent on ads for Republican candidates attacking Democrats. It's something like nine to one.
ADAIR: Absolutely. In fact, a new study out just in the last couple of days said that it is nine to one in the last five weeks. And I think the corporate interests, in particular, have been freed because of the Citizens United decision, but also I think because many business interests and the Chamber of Commerce have been unhappy with the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress, and so they're putting their money where their mouth is.
BLOCK: If you look at groups like the governors associations that do have to disclose their donors, compare their ads with ads from the independent groups or the super-PACs, are the ones that have to disclose the sources of their funding any more reliable on the truth side of things?
ADAIR: No, I don't think so. I think overall, the groups are just exaggerating to a great degree, and it's rare when we actually find one of these ads that is saying something that's right.
We found of the ads we've looked at from independent groups, we've issued only two true ratings on our Truth-O-Meter. So that's two out of 48 when you include the party-affiliated groups. So they really are stretching the truth.
BLOCK: Well, if they were all telling the truth, Bill, you'd be out of work.
ADAIR: Well, that's the thing. I look at this as job security, Melissa.
BLOCK: Okay, Bill Adair, editor of the nonpartisan website PolitiFact.com. Thanks very much.
ADAIR: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And you can find more truth-squadding of ads in NPR's project with PolitiFact. That's at npr.org/themessagemachine.