League of Women Voters of Wilmette: Fight Back Against Campaign Falsehoods
The league recommends two websites to help identify misleading political advertisements: FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org. Want to send a Letter to the Editor? Email: Chi-an.Chang@Patch.com
"Taxes are higher! Taxes are lower! The healthcare law will kill jobs! The healthcare law will create jobs!” Are competing claims driving you crazy?
Super PACs (well-funded political-action committees) have already spent $143 million dollars on the November 6 election and received over $280 million in contributions – and we have three months to go before Election Day. The Citizens United Decision has been concurrent with a major influx of money into the political process. And there are few controls to ensure accuracy of political advertising.
The League of Women Voters of Wilmette recommends two web sites that can help you identify distortions or outright lies in third party political advertisements. From there, the League urges you to contact local TV and radio station managers to inform them that you hold them accountable for airing misleading advertisements.
FactCheck.org, is a creation of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania. FactCheck.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, virtual consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and consumerism in US politics. It is well known and widely respected as a source for evaluating truthfulness of statements by politicians.
FlackCheck.org, is a second entity created by the Annenberg Center that gives average citizens more tools for evaluating political advertising. Through the Annenberg’s campaign Stand by Your Ad, citizens have ready access to contact information for their local media outlets and easy-to-use form letters.
Rules for candidates for federal office
In addition to whether or not ad claims are true, knowing whose money is behind which messages is critically important.
The Communication Act does not allow local television or radio stations or the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to censor or alter political advertising from candidates for federal office (Section 312 of the Communication Act). A candidate, however, is required to disclose who paid for the advertisement and include a statement of approval of the content. Stations typically extend this ruling to candidates for offices at all levels, although they are not legally required to do so.
Different rules for advertisements paid for by super PACs and social welfare organizations
Two types of organizations particularly need to be watched in terms of political money: Super PACs and similar 501 (c)(4) nonprofit corporations, known as social welfare organizations. These groups are funded by large donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, trade unions, and associations. Advertisements funded by these organizations are not regulated under state or federal campaign finance laws because they are “issue based” and do not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate or party. Federal rules holding candidates accountable for the content of their ads do not apply because the candidate is neither allowed to communicate with the committees nor to coordinate messages in any way.
The most important difference between a super PAC or social welfare organization and traditional candidate PAC is who can contribute and how much they can give. There are no restrictions on who may contribute and no upper limits on contributions to these two types of organizations. Although donor lists from super PACs eventually become public knowledge, disclosures are obscure and appear long after the advertisements have been aired. Social welfare organizations are not required by law to make any disclosures.
So, how does the connection to the media work? Super PAC/social welfare organization ads have to follow regulations as though they were product ads. Fortunately, when super PAC ads are run, the station becomes legally responsible for the material that airs and the station is required “to act with reasonable care” to ensure that ads aired are not false or misleading (www.fcc.gov).
Which races are the most likely targets?
States were blanketed with negative super PAC advertisements during the primary for the presidential candidates. This fall, deceptive advertisements are more likely to target U.S. Senate and House races in the battle for control in Washington.
What can you do?
Armed with this knowledge, it is the League of Women Voters’ recommendation that each of us should let our local station managers know that we expect them to meet their legal obligations for truthful advertising. FlackCheck.org has already done the research for you as to the electronic addresses for television stations in our area. Just go to www.FlackCheck.org and follow the links to the Stand by Your Ad campaign. You can use its generic message to the station managers or write your own.
Whether or not false claims are incorporated into specific advertisements, some statements become memorable because they are endlessly repeated, and the process of discernment gets lost in the shuffle. By encouraging stations to use their right to insist on the accuracy of these third-party ads, stations can help protect the public they serve.
League members from all across the county believe that our democracy depends on an informed and active citizenry to survive. Collectively, we urge all citizens to take at least one small step to prevent falsehoods and misleading messages from overwhelming the political process. Send that message to our station managers and give specific examples of misleading statements. If we speak en masse, they will get the message and require revisions. Thank them when they do.
President, League of Women Voters of Wilmette
Vice-President, Voter Service Chair, League of Women Voters of Wilmette