We recently wrote about candidate ads, and the "no censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act. Broadcasters can’t censor a "use" by a political candidate (a candidate ad that features his or her recognizable voice or image), and thus the broadcaster is not liable for the content of a candidate’s ad. So no matter what the candidate may say – the broadcaster runs the ad as is. Ads from third parties (PACs, SuperPACs, labor unions, right to life groups and other advocacy organizations) are, however, different. The “no censorship” provisions of the political rules don’t apply, so broadcasters are free to accept or reject third party ads based on the content of the ads. Even though broadcasters can reject political ads that come from third-party groups, they rarely do, and we seemingly see just as many outrageous claims about candidates in third party ads as we see in the candidate ads that can’t be censored. Why don’t broadcasters more aggressively decide which ads are truthful and which are not, and reject those ads that are not accurate?
A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times asks that question, citing a political ad running on a television station which had, in a news segment, determined that the contents of the ad were not true. Why was the ad still running on that very station? I spoke to the author, and was quoted as saying that broadcasters don’t want to act as “gatekeepers.” In more detail, I said that broadcasters don’t want to be in the position of being the arbiter of what ads are "truthful enough" to run and which ones should be rejected. In the political world, the concept of “truth” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Whether a candidate a “big-spending liberal” or not is not a claim that cannot be factually evaluated. Even in cases where the import of specific legislation is involved, or questions of what a piece of legislation accomplishes or the purposes underlying its adoption can be seen by different people in the political world from very different perspectives, making determinations about “truth” very difficult. In the eyes of some, a legislative act may be motivated by a desire to respond to constituent desires, but in the eyes of others that same act may be motivated by caving in to special interests or as part of some vast conspiracy to undermine the American way. In most cases, broadcasters are reluctant to draw lines as to when an ad is truthful enough to run on the air and when it is not – instead leaving the debate over the "truth" to the marketplace of ideas. If someone thinks that an ad is untrue, they can buy their own ad and spell out their position on the issue. (See this article from the Denver Post complementing TV stations on fact-checking and making their results available for the public to check on the veracity of political ads). But does that station need to worry about liability for the third-party ad?