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.