Monday, June 18, 2018

Political ads air, true or false

As expectations go, it's a pretty simple one:

TV and newspapers will avoid publishing ads with falsehoods in them.

But as it turns out, when those advertisements involve politics and elections, that's not such a simple situation.

Florida consumers learned that the hard way, courtesy of two different incidents: An advertisement published at the end of September in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was filled with so many errant statements that the newspaper admitted the item failed to meet its standards for publication.

And a study released by media watchdog group Free Press found almost no fact-checking segments of political ads in four TV markets across the country in August, including the Tampa Bay area.

Free Press found one station, St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, aired a fact-checking segment of any ad paid by the country's largest political action committees. The Aug. 21 segment, on an ad funded by Americans for Prosperity about President Obama's promises to reduce the national debt, featured analysis from the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact website.

Despite PolitiFact ruling the ad was false, WTSP aired it 150 times in August, according to the study.

"We don't screen these ads. … We believe in freedom of speech," said Ken Tonning, general manager at WTSP, noting that the station's advertising sales department and newsroom operate independently. "If a spot is blatantly against the law, if it's obscene, we won't air it. (But) I don't think the station should be a filter."

At the Herald-Tribune, interim publisher Allen Parsons declined to comment on the record, saying, "We felt the best route was talking about it in our news pages." Funded by the Government Is Not God PAC, the ad presented 11 points about President Barack Obama. PolitiFact fact-checked them, ruling that nine were Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire wrong.

The advertisement said "Barack Hussein Obama will" among other things, "force doctors to assist homosexuals in buying surrogate babies," "force courts to accept Islamic sharia law," and "force police agencies to allow Muslim Brotherhood to select staff." Those were ruled Pants on Fire false.

Parsons referred to the newspaper's second note to readers in a week, published Sept. 28, in which he admitted the ad "should not have appeared in our pages," blaming the publication on "a failure of our internal vetting system" while vowing "we are committed to assuring our guidelines for fairness and accuracy are upheld in the future."

He declined to comment on the irony of a newspaper filled with quotes from others on news events declining to speak on the record when its own pages make news.

Experts say political ads fall into two categories: those paid for by candidates and their political parties, and the advertisements purchased by third parties such as the super PACs.

Outside of violating federal law with obscenity or worse, TV stations can't refuse to air ads from candidates and the parties. They can, however, decline to air third-party ads.

"I think the stations are very reluctant to take any (political ad) down, because they don't want to act as a gatekeeper," said David Oxenford, a Washington lawyer who writes the Broadcast Law blog. "The way that false statements are best counteracted is by someone responding with the truth."

But Timothy Karr, author of the Free Press study "Left in the Dark," said the PAC ads are special, because those groups aren't required to disclose publicly who is funding them. (Free Press defines itself as a nonpartisan organization advocating for universal and affordable Internet access, diverse media ownership, vibrant public media and quality journalism.)

According to the study, Tampa viewers saw an average of 232 political ads per day in the first three weeks of August. One PAC, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, spent nearly $3 million on advertising by mid August, the study said.

"Since local TV stations are profiting the most from political ad buys, they should have some obligation to strike a balance in their news coverage," Karr said. "In some markets, there were thousands of political ads aired. Are these local stations providing a counterbalance by providing coverage that either fact-checked them or looked at the financial sources of the group's money?"

At Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28, general manager Rich Pegram admitted the station doesn't have a regular segment fact-checking political ads.

He called Karr's notion that local stations' news departments should fact-check PAC ads "a legitimate question that needs to be raised in newsrooms," noting that the station on Monday will begin giving some candidates five minutes of air time at the end of its 6 p.m. evening newscasts to outline their positions.

That also speaks directly to Karr's concern: At a time when political speech is increasingly more extreme, shouldn't media outlets with news departments inform their audiences about ads containing falsehoods, rather than give politicians more room to say anything?

Mark Herron, an attorney who often represents Democratic candidates from his Tallahassee office, said lawyers can send letters complaining about material in third-party ads to TV stations. But unless what's discussed is defamatory enough to sustain a lawsuit, they have no leverage to demand removal.

For example, the advertisement published in the Herald-Tribune said Obama sought to force Christian schools to hire non-Christian teachers, which is false. But it doesn't necessarily defame the president.

"Chances are, I can't go to court and prevail on getting an injunction," Herron said. "And (media outlets) might want the ad because they want the money."

WTSP does have a partnership with PolitiFact to air fact-checking segments, and the time period examined by the Free Press study included the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which altered every area news outlet's normal coverage plans.

Still, Karr said his findings show local TV stations should spend more time examining the content of third-party ads. "We want to raise the issue of the public interest obligation between stations and their viewers," he said. "It's a story that is local by its very nature and deserves this kind of coverage."

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