Political ads are allowed to mislead you and are often designed to do so

13 April 2022

Election season is upon us with the primary election set for May 17 and the general election held on Nov. 8.

With it, comes all kinds of advertisements from candidates running for political office.

Earlier this month, I received an email from a WRAL News viewer named James.

“Hey Dan, I’m a big fan of what you do with your pieces,” James wrote. “It would be nice to some of us viewers if WRAL could give us a 10 second heads up that a political ad is imminent so we can hit the MUTE button.”

North Carolina famously loves its political ads. Sometimes, we run more than any other state, which is ironic considering many of us don’t really care for them.

Los Angeles Times staff reporter Noah Bierman published a story in October 2020 entitled “Everyone is ‘sick of watching’: Political ads overwhelm North Carolina.”

As we approach next month’s primaries – political ad spending has surged here – boosted by outside groups – which reminded my WRAL executive producer Ashley Talley of one of her favorite political ads.

The advertisement reads: “Don’t let out-of-state money buy your vote.” Guess where the money came to pay for that ad? Out of state! It’s actually kind of funny until you remember you’re being manipulated by people vying for power.

To clarify for any reader, listener or viewer, here is something that I hope you already know. Political ads are allowed to mislead you. In fact, many of them are designed to do just that.

I recently met with Raleigh-based attorney Michael Weisel whose job it is to review ads before they’re published.

I asked Weisel the following question: Would you say that people making these ads often try to push the language as far as they possibly can before breaking the law?

“Well, of course, breaking the law is sort of a fuzzy term too, right?” Weisel said. “There’s not a statute that says, ‘Thou shall not lie.’ Maybe ‘exaggeration’ is an appropriate way of saying something.”

I also asked Weisel whether people flat out lie in political ads

“Well, certainly, they can and they have,” he said.

When people have a problem with the lies, it’s explained in the First Amendment, in which free speech is protected. A candidate has free speech, meaning they can say anything they want.

However, if they say something that’s factually and provably untrue, they can be sued in civil court for slander, but that’s extremely expensive and very hard to prove.

Like Weisel said, “It’s ‘fuzzy territory.’”

Free speech in general is not entirely free, like in ads. For instance, Coca-Cola can’t say it’s “new product” dubbed “Coke Eternal” will make you live forever. This would be an example of deceptive language, which is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. It’s called Truth in Advertising.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law Professor William Marshall explained why speech is regulated when someone is selling products for profit and not someone selling ideas for power.

“Political speech is different than commercial speech,” Marshall said. “Sometimes, figuring out the line between the two, as you can figure, might not always be that easy, but there is a basic difference in the way the court views restrictions on political speech as opposed to commercial speech.”

Here we are, back to square one. Politicians can say whatever they want – and you’re tired of hearing it – what can we do?

Two types of political ads with different rules

Another viewer named Les wrote an email to me.

“Hey Dan, please work with the producers of WRAL to stop all these negative political ads,” Les wrote.

Ah, the “greedy TV stations.” Why don’t we just stop playing the political ads? Well, it’s because we can’t, at least not entirely.

There are two types of political ads:

  • Candidate ads
  • Issue ads, which are also known as political action committee (PAC) ads

When it comes to candidate ads – the rule is simple – we can’t say no. They can say anything they want and we must air it – anything. They could literally make a commercial that says their opponent is a werewolf who kills cattle at night, and we would have to run it. The Federal Communications Commission has a rule that says broadcasters can’t censor that content. Also, if a TV station sells airtime to one side, the station must also offer equal time to the other side.

However, PAC ads are different. A TV station doesn’t have to air them, and we have lawyers look at them for potential legal issues.

Generally, those are the rules. However, the rules differ between networks and cable stations. For social media websites, and some sites like Twitter censor people, and other places don’t. It’s confusing.

There is not one set of rules across the board. Some people may feel there should be.

“Of course, then you get into censorship and the First Amendment, and I think we all believe, particularly these days, the First Amendment is a really important right, and the ability to criticize,” Weisel said. “I mean, one person’s lie, which is not really a lie, is somebody else’s truth.”

One person’s lie, which is not really a lie, is somebody else’s truth. That’s politics, baby.

Any viewer curious about a specific ad can always check out the PolitiFact “Truth Meter” on WRAL.com.

In Depth With Dan

Dan Haggerty is a reporter and anchor for WRAL. He’s won four regional Emmy awards for his anchoring and reporting in in Fort Myers, Florida; Cleveland; San Diego; Dallas; Portland, Oregon and Raleigh, North Carolina. He is proud to call the Triangle home.

Anyone who has an idea for In Depth with Dan can email him at dan@wral.com.

This post was originally published on this site

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