Stations have a responsibility to make sure that third-party political ads they air have some relation to reality. Their reporters ought to analyze the cliams made in such spots and air the results. But the effort shouldn’t stop there — the general manager ought to toss the dishonest ones.
As part of its campaign to persuade TV stations not to run third-party political attacks ads filled with distortion and flat-out falsehoods, the Annenberg Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania hosted a conference in Washington last Tuesday that thoroughly covered the trouble many political advertisers have with telling the truth and what obligations TV stations have to keep things honest.
Annenberg is targeting stations because they run most of TV’s political ads and because they do have ample discretion to reject third-party ads from interest groups, super PACs and the like. (Federal law requires stations to run ads from candidates just as they receive them.)
To “help” stations, Annenberg is alerting them to ads that it has found to be far more fiction than fact. It is also trying to enlist viewers to pressure stations to bounce the ads.
When I first wrote about the effort in March, I cautioned stations against relying on the work of Annenberg or any of the news organizations that have gotten into the political fact-checking business — Tampa Bay Times (PolitiFact), The Washington Post and the Associated Press.
But I also said that stations do have the responsibility to make sure that third-party ads have some relation to reality. Using the other fact checkers as tip sheets, TV reporters ought to analyze ads themselves and air the results, and general managers ought to toss the worst of them.
That’s asking a lot, I know. No station wants to turn down business, and no station want to become enmeshed in partisan politics around election time. Rejected advertisers are apt to charge that stations are favoring the opposition.
But having attended the Annenberg conference and moderated one of the panels, I feel more strongly about my advice.
On a panel moderated by RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender, three reporters — Greg Fox of Hearst’s WESH Orlando, Fla.; Pat Kessler of CBS’s WCCO Minneapolis; and James Pindell of WMUR Manchester, N.H. — talked about the fact-checking segments they do for their stations while providing several examples.
I was impressed. For each segment, the reporter had carefully dissected political ads and highlighted the misleading and the false in a way that anybody could understand.
Fox showed a three-minute “Trust Test” he did on a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad attacking Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson for voting for Obama’s health care package. His “Truth Meter” looked it its main three points and found two were false and the other highly questionable.
“The name of this ad is ‘Nightmare,’ but the Chamber is simply dreaming if it expects to get away with these distortions,” said Fox in wrapping up the segment.
Good stuff, but I’m afraid the Chamber and others are getting away with the distortions.
After the presentation, I asked the panelists whether ads are pulled off the air by stations after they are found wanting. The answer was basically no, although Kessler said that he is troubled by it: “This is something that I think about every time I do one of these.”
In going ahead and running the ads with false claims, he said, station management might feel that such ads fall “within the realm of political debate, within the boundaries of reasonableness and truthiness….”
That seems to be the standard for station management. On another panel, one that I moderated, NBC News Ombudsman Kevin Keeshan shared the criteria that the NBC O&Os use in determining whether to run third-party ads. Among them: “Ads will generally be accepted if there is a basis for the claims and such claims fall within the bounds of reasonable debate.”
Also discouraging is that both Fox and Kessler said that they believe it is a good idea to let suspect ads run for several days before analyzing them.
“Our voters must see something many times … before they do understand it,” said Kessler. “We just feel intuitively and journalistically to … [analyze an ad] without people having seen it … that it doesn’t make sense….”
Fox said that if he jumps on an ad immediately, viewers don’t have a chance to “digest” its contents. “If we don’t give it a chance to breathe like a good bottle of wine then they’re not actually able to soak in what we’re telling them is true or not true about [it].”
That means that viewers are often exposed repeatedly to the falsehoods in an ad before it is subjected to analysis and then, even if a station’s own reporter find it to be to full of lies and half-truths, it continues to air.
One report in one newscast hardly undoes all the false impressions generated by the ad airing over and over again before and after the newscast.
Stations like WESH, WCCO and WMUR are to be applauded.
In the best of all possible worlds, every station in the country would be cranking out fact-checking stories through election season just like the three Annenberg panelists. Fox said that there is no excuse for stations in markets of any size not to get in on the action. Kessler said that he puts his segments together with the help of only one video editor.
But stations ought to do more. They should hold themselves to a higher standard. Most ads do fall within the boundaries of reasonableness, and are OK to air. But a few every election season fall outside and should be rejected.
These fact-checking efforts all seem to have gimmicks. Fox has his “Truth Meter.” The worst of the PolitiFact ads are rated “Pants on Fire” and the Washington Post uses “Pinocchios” to measure mendacity. The more you get, the bigger the liar you are.
Such devices work. They grab the attention of viewers and leave no doubts in their minds. Best of all, they belittle the offending political advertiser.
So, here’s a suggestion. We’ll call it “The Hook.”
After you air a segment picking apart a particularly dishonest ad, the reporter looks deep into the camera as an appropriate graphic pops up and says, “This ad is so bad, so full of lies that we’re giving it The Hook. You won’t see this on [your call letters or on-air brand] anymore.”