Broadcasters Say They're Seeing More Demands To Take Down Political Ads

PHOTO Jonathan Karl interviews Christine ODonnell, Oct. 20, 2010.
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Candidates facing blistering attacks from television and radio ads are fighting back by demanding that stations take down ads that contain false claims.

Station owners and their lawyers said they're seeing more demands that they take down ads, often threatening lawsuits or complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Each year it gets to be a bigger and bigger problem, and that's just a function of ads are getting more and more aggressive, and more money is coming in from non-candidate groups," said David Oxenford, a Washington attorney who represents broadcasters and who is the editor of BroadcastLawBlog.com.

Although political ads are generally protected by the First Amendment, protests can succeed in blunting the attacks:

•The Republican candidate challenging Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Colo., revised his attack ad after her campaign complained. The original ad from Cory Gardner accused Markey of "voting for the most fiscally irresponsible budget in history." She voted against the 2010 budget twice, and complained to KDVR, the Fort Collins Coloradoan reported. Gardner's campaign had a new ad Wednesday saying she voted "to approve $1.2 trillion in new government spending."

•Three Cape Cod radio stations pulled an ad this week attacking Republican congressional candidate Jeffrey Perry, a former police supervisor. The ads recounted a 1991 incident in which an officer under Perry's command was convicted of assaulting a 14-year-old girl, the Cape Cod Times reported. The stations — all owned by Qantum Communications — pulled the ads after complaints from listeners and Perry.

•Last week, a television station in Portland, Maine, pulled a Maine Republican Party ad attacking Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and her fiancé, hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman. "Pingree's boyfriend got $200 million from the Wall Street bailout. Now she flies on her own private jet," the ad said. Lawyers for Pingree complained and WCSH pulled the ad, saying it was false because Sussman, not Pingree, owned the jet.

•In July, two Pennsylvania stations stopped airing a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad that attacked Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic Senate candidate. The ads said he "voted with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time." That may have been true when the chamber produced the ad. But before it aired, Sestak voted against the House speaker's position on the DISCLOSE act, which would have required the chamber and other groups to report on who's contributing to the ads.

The Pittsburgh stations, WPGH and WPMY, are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Barry Faber, Sinclair's executive vice president, said the complaints put stations in the position of injecting themselves into campaigns. "The first thing that happens is the party that complained about the ad puts out a press release, saying we judged the ad to be false," he said. "The next thing that happens ... is we're contacted by the ad agency that placed it, threatening never to place another ad on one of our stations again. That's a terrible position to put us in."

Sinclair has the largest footprint in the 16 states with the most competitive elections, according to SNL Kagan. The media analysis firm expects television political revenues nationally to increase 25% compared with the 2006 election, to $2.5 billion.

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