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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Regular Election Loser: Truth in Ads

November 09, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The 1994 election is dead, long live the cleansing.

The big, heaving sigh of relief is premature, however, because federal law gives political mudders and splatterers the right to extend their grubby television tactics to future elections as well.

With dirt from this election campaign still settling after Tuesday's vote, you'd love to send the following memo to media:

Don't take the money and run. Stiffen your spines next time and begin rejecting unfair political ads. By turning them down, you cut off a windpipe of deceptive campaigning. By accepting them, you nourish the myth of their inevitability.

A nice thought. When it comes to most of the spots on TV that you love to hate, though, the memo would be futile, for their inevitability is no myth.

That's because federal statute requires broadcasters to accept virtually all political advertising from candidates, provided such ads include the sponsoring candidate's voice or photograph.

Under no such restriction are print media, which alone must bear responsibility for the misleading political ads they choose to run.

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The Los Angeles Times last Friday, for example, took the unusual step of running a story refuting much of a full-page Michael Huffington ad run in the same edition of the paper (and later in the Sunday Times). In attacking Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the misleading ad had selectively quoted, and taken out of context, portions of a Times story about her voting record vis-a-vis her husband's financial interests.

There was no assurance, of course, that those who saw the ad also read the Times story. Moreover, if the paper found the ad misleading enough to merit a separate story correcting the record, it should have avoided the misinformation by refusing to run the ad in the first place.

Returning to television, meanwhile, what is an unfair political ad? A broad definition would include those oft-misleading, warm and cozy family shots of candidates. Acknowledging that absolute purity is an unrealistic goal, however, let them have their choreographed images of fuzzy home fronts, baby smoochings, hard-hat populism and other public-relations misdemeanors.

To put it another way, there's unfair, and there's unfair .

Mere bad acting by candidates, or even bad taste, seems almost quaint compared with the blizzard of tawdry political spots that California and much of the nation have just endured and likely will face again, unless it can be demonstrated that heavy doses of mean-spirited ads don't work.

Even paid ads that broadcasters believe to be deceptive or erroneous are protected under the law. In other words, ads that showcase even outright lying--the most malicious smear imaginable--cannot be rejected or yanked by broadcasters.

Even if they had wanted to, for example, California TV stations could not have refused a revolting Tom Umberg ad that all but blamed Attorney General Dan Lungren for the slaying of Polly Klaas.

Or the shrill Huffington ad insisting that the Associated Press charged that Feinstein "lied, flat-out lied" about details of her employing a Guatemalan housekeeper in the early 1980s, although the wire service repeatedly said it did no such thing. Even after the AP requested removal of the ad, the Huffington campaign continued to run it along with another version substituting "hometown newspaper" for Associated Press, a reference to a story critical of Feinstein printed by striking San Francisco Chronicle employees, but later somewhat backed away from by the authors.

Deceitful ads? Yes. But the free-speech argument--that the cure would be worse than the affliction--prevails here.

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"This is a very difficult area," said Andrew Schwartzman, executive director of Media Access Project, a Washington-based law firm working in public-interest telecommunications. "But allowing broadcasters with their own axes to grind to be able to censor candidates is antithetical to the system. Even broadcasters exercising good faith should not be in a position to deny voters the right to hear what the candidates have to say. The theory of the First Amendment is that an informed electorate will make the right decision."

Even though the goal of some ads is clearly to create a misinformed public.

Schwartzman sees the dilemma a bit differently. "The system that says that candidates can spend as much of their own money as they want is central to this problem," he said. "As long as one candidate can outspend another candidate, whether 2-to-1 or 100-to-1, you have a situation where a lie can go unrebutted."

Here is where broadcasters can play a significant role in balancing the scales, although you wouldn't have known it based on their performance in the California campaign.

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