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Politics / Issues

Why Stations Run Political Ads They Know Aren’t True

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If a television or radio station determines that a political ad is false, should they refuse to run it?

That’s exactly what the non-partisan group Free Press is calling on stations to do – or, at the very least, their news departments should do a better job truth-squadding those ads.

“They certainly could reject some of them,” said Matt Wood, the group’s policy director. If they're unwilling to do that, they could do more fact-checking, he said.

Free Press’s new report, “Left in the Dark,” analyzes political ads in several swing-state markets: Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa.

It says viewers are seeing more political ads than ever before, but television stations only rarely fact-check any of the ads.

And even when television stations conduct fact-checks, that story is overwhelmed by a flood of T.V. ads. In Denver, there was one minute of fact-checking for every 162 minutes of campaign ads.

“What they owe the public is to point out the discrepancy between how many times they run the ad versus how many times they report on its veracity,” Wood said.

Stations often say they are required to run campaign ads without censorship, and that’s largely true for candidate ads.

One extreme example is an ad for an obscure candidate challenging Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn, a Muslim. The challenger’s ads feature images of beheading and dead fetuses.

The station said it was required to air them. The federal law says the station “shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast by any such candidate.”

But Super PAC ads have no such protection.

“There’s a difference between candidate ads, which stations pretty much have to run, and third-party and Super PAC ads, which they could reject,” Wood said.

It happens, occasionally. This month in Iowa, several stations refused at air an ad against Rep. Steve King by the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

The ad implied King opposed a ban on children at dogfights. (He says he voted against the bill because it should be a state, not federal, issue.)

But the Free Press study found that stations almost never rejected these ads – and very few of them were engaging in serious fact-checking.

One exception is in Tampa, where WTSP and the Pulitzer-prize winning Politifact website have joined forces.

In one recent segment, an ad from Americans for Prosperity received PolitiFact’s worst rating.

“We gave it ‘Pants on Fire,’ because it’s so misleading, and it’s ridiculously false,” said Angie Holan of PolitiFact Florida.

But that didn’t stop WTSP from airing Americans for Prosperity ads 150 times that month, Free Press reports.

“If the station’s own news team says it is false, and they keep running it, you have to question the station’s commitment to the audience,” Wood said.

Tracie Powell, a reporter with the Poynter Institute’s Sense-making Project, says it isn’t hard to guess why T.V. stations are airing these questionable ads.

“T.V. stations have been hit hard, so they’re less likely to turn down paid advertising these days,” she said.

But that doesn’t relieve them of their responsibility to serve the public, Powell added.

“We have an obligation to tell viewers what’s true in the ads and what’s not true. Unfortunately, that’s not happening at a lot of stations.”

She says that makes it even more important for voters to educate themselves. She uses the “Ad Hawk” app from the Sunlight Foundation. It allows you to hold your smartphone up to a campaign ad, and gives you information about who’s behind it.