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
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
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.