Political Correction

Astroturfing The Airwaves: Right-Wing Money Machine Bought 45,000 Ads Since Aug. 1

October 04, 2010 1:38 pm ET - by Alan Pyke

Ten days ago we noted that a group of nine right-wing super-PACs, drawing on unlimited contributions from billionaires and corporations, had bought 33,485 television ads attacking Democrats and boosting conservatives. That's an alarming number, considering that it accounts for only seven weeks. And it's swollen by nearly 12,000 ads in the ten days since we first pulled this data together. That means that since August 1, these nine groups have aired 44,943 ads at a cost of roughly $35 million (click image to enlarge):

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It makes sense that the pace is accelerating as the election draws closer. If you're trying to influence the outcome of an election, you want to drop most of your coin in the closing weeks. That's just basic strategy. In the attack ad business, though, there's another potent reason to save your full-court press until the final weeks: fact checkers.

Given the crumbling state of campaign finance law, bloggers and fact checkers are essentially the only source of accountability for political ads. Ads almost never get taken off the air, even when a chorus of voices calls for a false ad's removal. Recently, the right-wing answer to the AARP launched a spate of ads designed to trick seniors into voting Republican by misleading them on the Affordable Care Act. The 60 Plus Association's first salvo of ads cost them about $4 million and drew criticism from around the web.

We called the ads misleading, dishonest and a scam. Health Care for America NOW! called them "demonstrably false" in a letter to television stations asking them to pull the ads. MoveOn.org didn't pull any punches, telling members that "some versions of the ad flat out lie" about health care reform. FactCheck.org, a non-partisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, summed it up: "most of the ads also make statements that can't be backed up, lack important context or are wrong."

60 Plus isn't going quietly in the night, though. First their lawyer fired off a shoddy defense of the ads, which we picked apart last week. Then, proving the power lies ultimately with rich special interests, 60 Plus doubled down with a further $1 million of air time in three districts.

If this sounds like a rigged game, that's because it is. The only way to win it is to get word out — widely — about false ads. Americans hate being lied to, and we resent it when people who think we're too stupid to notice try to put one over on us. If enough people find out an ad is untrue, the blowback can hurt the conservatives who seek to benefit from the deception.

They want people to react emotionally and run out to a voting booth before anybody has a chance to point out they're lying. That's why these super-PACs are planning to drop the hammer at the last minute. Considering they've put 45,000 ads on air already, and spent only a fraction of their bankroll, it's going to be a mighty big hammer.

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