Stand Up To Political Attack Ads

On Time’s website Michael Scherer asks: “[W]ho draws the lines when strategists for both parties believe [there] is little cost to peddling deliberate, carefully crafted falsehoods?”

Politico blogger Alexander Burns wonders “whether we've entered a world where no one has the authority to police the candidates?”

Legitimate concerns: yes. But the system is not without recourse, however imperfect. By diligently assessing the accuracy of campaign claims, journalists can increase the cost of peddling falsehoods. And while, in most circumstances, they can’t reject ads by federal candidates, broadcast station managers have the authority to reject third party mendacity. Here’s how these protections work:

Stations: Just say No.

In October when an ad from third party group called “Building a Better Ohio” made it appear that a woman who opposed a ballot initiative favored it, a number of Ohio stations showed the advertiser the door. (You can see the problematic ad here. They were able to turn the ad away because FCC rules permit stations to reject outside group ads (which are sometimes called independent expenditure ads) outright or insist that those they chose to air stick to the facts.

Since third party ads bring higher revenues than candidate or product pitches, stations have a financial incentive to take the money and run them. The prospect of being sued for libel or defamation by the aggrieved target does increase stations vigilance somewhat. But since station managers know that few candidates actually sue, they are probably more likely to be persuaded by viewer, community, and the editorial sentiment. More on that in a minute.

Penalize deception on air and on line.

Media also blunt political deception by airing news reports that unmask it. If consultants foresee their candidate’s competence or trustworthiness taking a hit, particularly with swing voters, they’re more likely to shelve a sleazy assault or embellished biographical blurb. Two instances — one Republican and one Democratic — reveal what it takes to make that happen. First, after fact checking discredited Romney’s claim that at Bain he created 100,000 jobs, “net net” an ad by his allies reduced the figure to “thousands” and the candidate recast the claim to say that the “four of the companies that we invested in — they weren’t businesses I ran, but we invested in — ended up today having some 120,000 jobs. Some of the businesses we invested in weren’t successful and lost jobs.”

Similarly, when Republicans touted fact checkers’ dismissal of the allegation that Romney had outsourced jobs at Bain, a widely aired Democratic ad asserted instead that his “firms’’ shipped jobs out of the U.S. (At issue was not whether but when outsourcing had occurred – while Romney was managing Bain or after he had given up managerial control to head the Olympics.)

Why does fact checking work when it works?

Three factors distinguish these instances from those in which corrections were not forthcoming: the centrality of the claim to a candidate’s message, a high level of concentrated media focus on the matter and consensus among reputable mainstream journalism and not just the fact checkers within it. Unfortunately, most of the deceptions flagged by the fact checkers this season fail to satisfy these criteria, among them the allegation that “For his first interview as President, Obama chose Arab TV for an apology” (courtesy of a group calling itself “Secure America Now”) and the charge by the pro-Democratic third party group known as Priorities USA Action that Romney had the 2002 Winter Olympic uniforms manufactured in Burma and ”left Massachusetts over $1 billion in debt.” (To find out what’s deceptive about each click here.

What can voters do?

To urge Hawaii stations to both fact check consequential political claims on air and on line and deny third party deceptions access to our living rooms, e-mail your local stations. Share the link with family, friends and casual acquaintances in battleground states. And if you happen to be a station manager, consider the possibility that you are the person who can increase the cost of “peddling deliberate, carefully crafted falsehoods” in the Aloha State.

About the author: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, home of FactCheck.org and its sister site, FacCheck.org. She lives part-time on the Big island.



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