TV stations more concerned about money than truth in advertising

In the special election for New York’s District 26, outside groups like American Crossroads filled the local airwaves with more than $700,000 in ad buys while a Democratic counterpart spent almost $300,000, with much of the campaign being dominated by debate on Medicare.

And this month, a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has begun running ads in the Boston media calling out Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) for his support of the Ryan budget as a “vote to end Medicare.” The National Republican Congressional Committee wrote a strongly worded letter demanding the broadcaster take it down because it was “false.” Democrats made the same claims last fall when ads attacking Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were run by the American Action Network.

In the case of the Murray ads, a representative of the anonymously-funded group stated after the election that the ads must have been accurate because the stations aired them.

Viewers can  be confident in assuming that if the ads weren’t true, they wouldn’t be aired, right?

Wrong.

When a television station makes determines whether to run a political advertisement, it is not vouching for the ad’s accuracy. Rather, it only indicates that the station’s general manager (1) is certain that the advertiser has the ability to pay for the ad, (2) has made a judgment that the station is unlikely to be successfully sued for airing the ad for containing pornography, or copyrighted or slanderous materials.

Beyond that, television stations have no responsibility to determine whether the advertisement is true or accurate. In any case, viewers should not accept at face value the explanation that because it is aired the ad is accurate. That explanation is specious and should be given the credence it deserves – none.

While there is no stomach among Washington policymakers to undertake changing the standards of truthfulness for political ads, there are new efforts underway to provide viewers with more information about who is financing it so that viewers can gauge for themselves the weight they want to give to the message. Unbeknownst to the Supreme Court’s majority in Citizens United, which touted existing disclosure, current rules require disclosure only for the group claiming responsibility for the campaign ad, often resulting in no information about the actual funders or their motives.

The Media Access Project (MAP) recently filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking it to revise current rules to require disclosure of the “true” financial backers of political ads. The MAP proposal would require groups to disclosure funders who contribute more than 10 percent of the groups’ budget, and to identify on the air donors who funded more than 25 percent of the ad’s budget or more than one-third of the cost of a radio commercial.

The petition is pending before the FCC, but it would have to be taken up immediately to have any chance of informing citizens who or what is spending large amounts of money trying to elect or defeat candidates in 2012. The Obama administration, on a separate track, is weighing an executive order that would require disclosure of the newly allowed campaign spending by government contractors, building on the spending disclosures they are already required to make. 

By November 2012, the amount of money being spent by outside groups on attacks ads is going to be staggering, with operatives from both parties accepting huge anonymous checks from publicity-averse donors. Candidates could be relegated to being bit players in their own campaigns, and broadcasters – who will profit greatly from the bloodletting - will be even less helpful to the public than you might imagine.

Unless something dramatic happens, and happens quickly, American viewers should brace themselves with a healthy dose of skepticism and not expect to hear the truth from groups of any political stripe that won’t reveal who or what is shelling out the money to fund them. Perhaps the barrage of ads and a thoroughly disgusted public will be enough to prod policymakers to move meaningful disclosure legislation through Congress or regulation through the FCC.

But regardless of the amount of disclosure, viewers should bear in mind that television stations are more concerned about the advertiser's check clearing than the veracity of the ad.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. She also heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.