Can you believe political ads?by Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
With the political campaign season underway, our television screens could soon be filled with attack ads.
Last week's feud between Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and local television stations over an ad criticizing one of her votes, raises the question: can voters believe what they see?
St. Paul, Minn. — The spot was part of a series of similar ads aimed at more than two dozen House Republicans who voted against expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. It was paid for by Americans United for Change, a national coalition of unions and liberal groups with a chapter in Minnesota.
"George Bush just vetoed Abby. And Josh. He vetoed Latoya And Kevin. Bush vetoed health insurance for millions of America's children," the ad said.
Over a montage of children's faces, the voiceover says Congresswoman Bachmann would rather spend money on the war in Iraq than on children's healthcare.
Bachmann called local television stations to protest the spot, and her congressional committee sent a letter to KSTP asking that it be pulled. The letter calls the ad "provably false," saying 80 percent of the funding for the war was approved before Bachmann even got to Congress.
No Twin Cities stations pulled the ad, which stopped running last Thursday, the day Congress failed to override Bush's veto of SCHIP.
Ad expert Ron Faber, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says skirmishes like the one between Bachmann and American's United for Change, could become more common as the 2008 election season heats up.
"Politics have become more partisan and so that's encouraging this. The increased use of and success of talk radio and blogs encourages more polarized speech and so we get more of this and the apparent success of the Swift Boat campaign is going to encourage more of it," according to Faber.
There are few laws on the books regulating commercials with political content because the courts see them as political speech. And political speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Some states have passed their own truth-in-advertising laws to fight inaccurate attack ads, but they are difficult to enforce. If cases do make it to court, it's often too late to have any effect.
Many television stations ask third-party issue groups to provide substantiation for claims made in their commercials. But there are no set national guidelines.
Brooks Jackson, who runs the group Factcheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says it's a good thing there isn't a federal law dictating what politicians and third-party groups can and can't say on TV.
"You don't want government censorship of political ads," Jackson says. "You don't want Alberto Gonzalez prosecuting the Kerry campaign for something George Bush thought was false in the 2004 campaign. And you wouldn't want the reverse to happen if the partisan titles were reversed. What government official would you trust to be the ultimate arbiter of what's true and false in a political campaign? That's the voters' job. That's our job."
Jackson says the airwaves should be a democratic place where the voices of competing groups can all be heard.
The Minnesota director of Americans United for Change, Donald McFarland, says the group stands by its claims against Bachmann. He says the ad made no false accusations, and Bachmann's voting record is clearly in support of the war.
WCCO vice president and GM Susan Adams Loyd last week released a statement saying the station has a review policy for all candidate and third-party issue group commercials. She says the policy will remain in place throughout the campaign season.
The statement says the station is prepared to reject any ad if it feels its content or presentation is irresponsible. And it's assigned a reporter who will regularly review political ads for their accuracy and truthfulness.
The University of Minnesota's Faber says in the absence of formal oversight, voters should be skeptical of all campaign ads.
"So we have to always remember that there's probably more to the story than what appears in the ad. The ad should be viewed as something that might start you to think about an issue or to investigate it but you certainly can't take it as the whole truth," says Faber.
He says viewers should never take political ads at face value.
- Morning Edition, 10/22/2007, 7:24 a.m.