OHIO — There was no escaping the blizzard of negative television and radio advertising assaulting the eyes and ears of Buckeyes in the run-up to Super Tuesday.
Consider this: the super PACs supporting front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, as well as Newt Gingrich, dumped some $4 million into pre-primary (and predominantly negative) advertising in Ohio, far out-spending the campaigns themselves (including $1.2 million from the Romney camp and $500,000 from Santorum’s campaign).
This spending spree is no surprise, really, considering that Ohio was the crown jewel of Super Tuesday’s ten state primaries. Not to mention that no Republican—say it with me!—has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.
It’s also no surprise, in today’s world of down-and-dirty politics, that amidst this ad deluge Ohioans have been subjected to some deceptive claims. What might actually be surprising is that while TV stations are generally obligated to accept ads from candidates for public office, they can refuse to air misleading ads from Super PACs and other third-party groups.
The “Stand By” campaign has been issuing regular reminders on its website that TV stations “can and should refuse misleading super PAC ads,” and can insist on changes to those ads, and exhorting viewers in local markets to urge their stations to exercise those rights. Two of the posts—first on February 14, and again last Friday—singled out ads that aired in Ohio.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg center, noted via email that Flackcheck.org isn’t making independent judgments, instead relying on previous work by fact-checking sites. Those sites’ rulings, of course, can be open to debate. For example, the March 2 “Stand By” post targeted a pro-Romney ad that attacked Santorum for voting to restore the voting rights of convicted felons. Factcheck.org had previously called the ad “misleading” because it includes an image of a man in prison garb, while the measure Santorum backed would have restored voting rights only after convicts completed probation and parole. There’s room for disagreement about whether that’s deceptive enough to warrant rejecting the ad.
But other ads include claims that are more clearly false. One such ad, titled “Obama,” was part of a $257,000 Ohio ad buy by the pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund. The ad, which according to the fund ran on most major stations in Dayton, compares Romney and Gingrich to President Obama. At one point, it asserts that “just like Obama, Romney left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt”—a claim PolitiFact has checked and called false. In Ohio, NBC4 reporter Ted Hart fact-checked the ad on-air last week for Columbus-area viewers, coming to the same conclusion. (A similar ad, “Vital Decisions,” ran on many other Ohio stations. That version leaves out the “$1 billion debt” claim.)
In this case, the critics are on firmer ground. The newspaper stories the ad cites as sources discuss a projected budget deficit of up to about $1 billion as Romney was leaving office in Massachusetts. That top-end figure was unusually high, but stories like this get written all over the country at the start of the budget process every year, as states and municipalities work to make spending and revenue projections line up. Moreover, because states are legally barred from running deficits, these projected shortfalls don’t necessarily turn into debt. Indeed, Massachusetts closed the gap and balanced the budget.
Asked about these critiques, Stuart Roy of the Red White and Blue Fund, said, “it seems a bit nitpicky to go after [the distinction between] debt versus deficit.” But he’s wrong, and so was the ad.
Calls to the Dayton stations that aired this ad—WDTN-NBC, WHIO-TV (CBS), and WKEF ABC22/Fox—were not returned. Roy said he is not aware of objections or pushback from TV stations about the ad, or any other from his group.
Conversations with managers and ad sales staff at stations around Ohio offered a mixed picture of the level of scrutiny applied to third-party political ads, and of the potential impact of efforts like the “Stand By” campaign, though everyone interviewed by CJR noted the super PACs do provide documentation for their claims.
Bill Young, the national sales manager at WEWS-TV in Cleveland, said that his station’s attorneys review that documentation and then give the ad a thumbs-up or down. The focus of that review, he said, is protecting the station from liability.
“We don’t believe in censorship,” said Young. “If we are not going to get sued, we probably are not going to squelch it. It does not happen often where we pull ads.”
“We don’t care what PolitiFact says independently,” he added. “We go on the viewpoint of our attorneys.”
Frank Wilson, director of operations for WBNS-TV in Columbus, described a similar process. At his station, any questions related to the accuracy of an ad are referred to legal counsel, Wilson said. “We don’t want to get too much in the middle of it.”
At NBC4 in Columbus, a local sales manager also said attorneys play a lead role. But Dan Bradley, the station’s general manager and a former news director, outlined a more thorough vetting process. “Third party ads don’t enjoy the same protections as candidates’ ads,” he noted. “We have to be vigilant and they are reviewed on a number of different levels.”
Bradley described the pre-broadcast review process for Super PAC ads at his station as follows:
Every third-party ad gets several steps of scrutiny before it airs, starting with a general sales manager. (In Columbus, we have one sales person who is a political specialist.) That person—along with a national sales manager and local sales manager, depending on how an ad comes in—with the assistance of a few others, reviews the ad and all the supporting documentation that comes [from the third-party group] with it. If that person has a concern, he might push back to the agency that placed the ad and ask for more backup documents. If the concern persists, they get me involved.
And then, Bradley noted, he might also involve his D.C.-based counsel.
“The vast majority of spots that come in get pretty close to the line,” said Bradley. “And then under the microscope they pass muster. But there are two sides to every argument, very seldom is a claim black and white. It’s more, how close to black or white can you get?”
Ken Winneg of Flackcheck.org said the internal review process Bradley described sounded strong, but he encouraged TV stations to consider the findings of fact-checking sites as part of their review process. Bradley said he is familiar with the “Stand By” campaign, and might consult Flackcheck.org or related sites on occasion, but he expressed confidence in the internal reviews stations already conduct.
He said he also expects reporters to ferret out misleading claims. “I want our news department to aggressively evaluate and challenge ads on the market,” Bradley said. “Whether we choose to run it or not is one thing, but there is no reason news departments shouldn’t analyze them.”
That’s what NBC4’s Hart did in the case of the “Obama” ad. Hart said he got a list of ads running in Ohio from his station’s sales department, tracked down and viewed the ads on YouTube or campaign web sites, and reviewed them for accuracy, something he says his news department does regularly.
“I looked for things that needed to be checked, but a lot of it is semantics,” Hart told me. “What one person calls a ‘new fee,’ to another person it is called a ‘tax.’”
“I think viewers appreciate journalists trying to run this down for them,” he added. “Individual voters can do the research themselves, but most are inclined not to take that extra effort.”
What about the financial incentives behind all this? TV stations can charge higher rates for super PAC ads—“whatever the market will bear,” as the vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters recently told The Hill— than they can for ads from candidates’ campaigns, which must be offered at a discounted rate. So perhaps the question is, as Bill Moyers put it in a segment about the “Stand By Your Ad” campaign, “can conscience defeat cash?”
And yet, according to NBC4’s Bradley, the choice is not so stark.
“We don’t doubt at all if we turn down an ad for whatever reasons, deceptive claims, [the Super PAC] will be back with a different version the next day,” he said.
And this torrent of ad cash comes with a logistical burden.
“This influx of Super PAC money, while a financial windfall, it is also a gigantic headache for us,” said Bradley. “How do you stay ahead of it [reviewing these ads]? It’s a tsunami.”
Staff writers Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx contributed to this report.T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.