Leashing the Dogs
Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/22/2004 8:00:00 PM
Candidates can question each other's parentage, compare their opponents to farm animals and sling mud by the truckload in TV and radio spots. In fact, candidates can do anything short of inciting the public to violence, and broadcasters are powerless to stop them.
Under the Communications Act, stations are prohibited from "censoring" candidate-sponsored political advertisements, which means politicians can levy attacks against their rivals and make claims for their own brand of political patent medicine that would have the FTC filing a complaint against a traditional advertiser in a Madison Avenue minute.
One of the campaign reforms that passed judicial muster: Candidates now have to take on-air ownership of those commercials, That's why you're hearing President Bush and Sen. Kerry say during their spots that they "approved" them, which in theory should prove some kind of leash on the attack dogs of political war.
But candidates can have surrogate thugs, whose so-called "issue ads" are paid for with soft money, like the current commercials hammering at John Kerry's war record.
In fact, unlike a politician's commercials, which can say anything, stations are under no such restraints to accept issue ads. Broadcasters could turn them down—though that would be turning down money—if they suspected the messages were libelous, or even if the commercials did not meet the station's own standards for accuracy or decorum.
For instance, if any of the claims in the anti-Kerry Swift boat ad barrage prove libelous, stations could be on the hook for airing them. From what we hear, most major-group station managers have not been vetting those commercials through their attorneys, because the bar is extremely high for proving libel. Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, which created the mud-slinging campaign spot in which truth may be the only verifiable casualty, reportedly provided stations running the vile ad with 10 pages worth of documentation with which to cover their assets. (It's worth mentioning that, last week, three major newspapers—including The New York Times—concluded that the commercial suggesting Kerry was no war hero was blatantly false.)
Given the power of the media to influence the voting public—look at the talking-head mileage the Kerry charges have gotten—we think broadcasters' defense against nontruthful or misleading political speech should be better than "Well, it wasn't libelous."
We believe stations and cable networks that take political ads should create an election-season segment in their local newscasts, or some cable equivalent, to provide regular reality checks on those claims, perhaps as a function of the I-teams that are a staple of most station news operations. Many stations already do this. All of them should.
It seems to us that there is no more consumer-friendly investigation than into the slickly packaged, focus-grouped claims, slams and slurs that political consultants are betting millions of dollars will help decide the future of the nation.
And not just for the presidential race. There are Congressional, state and local races, too. Not only would such a watchdog make for responsible and compelling news, it would provide a disincentive to politicians who choose to sacrifice the truth on the altar of political ambition.
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