Political ads should meet a higher standard

by Jim Longworth

While the news media and political pundits are still reflecting on the outcomes of last week’s elections, we might be better served to focus instead on the flawed process under which those elections were run.

Clearly we are in need of serious campaign finance reform, because McCain-Feingold was rendered essentially moot by this year’s Supreme Court ruling.

Back in January, the Supremes said that corporations can use their profits to advertise for political candidates, rather than funnel limited amounts of money through PACs. Meanwhile, organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce are free to solicit funds from undisclosed sources (including foreign governments and companies) which they can use for political and advocacy advertising.

But funding isn’t the biggest problem. We need to stop campaign abuses by reforming the political process at the back end, not at the source. In other words, let candidates and parties raise all the money they want, but hit them where it hurts every time that money is used to produce ads that contain false or defamatory information.

Case in point, the GOP’s attack ad against North Carolina House majority leader Hugh Holliman. In an attempt to make Holliman look soft on crime, the Republican party distributed a mailer that contained the following language: “Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death row inmates could leave prison early and move in next door [to you].” The ad had two major problems. First, it wasn’t true. Holliman is a proponent of the death penalty. And second, it was extremely hurtful to Holliman whose 16-year-old daughter was raped and murdered back in 1985. The killer was caught, and Holliman witnessed the man’s execution.

After the media reported on the cruelty of the ad, state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer formally apologized “if it caused [Holliman] any personal anguish or discomfort.” Fetzer had no choice but to apologize, but it was a hollow gesture because the party has no intention of halting its use of negative ads. And why should they? Research indicates that attack ads are effective in swaying voters against a particular candidate or referendum. They worked against Holliman, and they also worked against US Senate candidate Tom Campbell. During the California GOP primary, Carly Fiorino ran a TV ad that depicted Campbell as a red-eyed demon in sheep’s clothing. Fiorino paid GOP hit man Fred Davis to produce the ad, which came with a price tag of $230,000. Davis knew what he was doing was wrong, and so did the TV stations who accepted Carly’s money to run the ad.

If we really want to stop the flow of denigrating political ads, we must lobby for the FCC and the FEC to impose huge fines on everyone who has anything to do with the design, placement and distribution of those ads. For starters, the state and federal election commissions should create disclaimer forms which candidates and political organizations must complete for each TV and radio spot or print ad that they produce. On that form, the candidate and campaign must swear that all of the information in the ad is true. After that, anyone who has anything to do with that ad must be given a copy of the signed form prior to production, distribution or broadcast of the material. If the ad is later determined to contain false and defamatory information, the candidate would pay a fine of $100,000 for every time the ad runs, and the campaign or offending organization would pay a fine of $500,000 dollars per run. If the agency, consultant, video producer or broadcaster failed to ask for a signed form in advance, then each of those entities would be fined $50,000 per run. Those fines might seem unfair, but then, so are the ads they are designed to stop.

In the old days when I worked in local television, our sales departments routinely rejected commercials that were in bad taste, even though that meant losing revenue. We must demand a return to those more ethical times when truth and dignity were more important than profits or votes.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).