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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: "Stand By Your Ad" campaign seeks truth in political advertising

By Marilyn McLeod and Carol Schreiber
June 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Do you feel that you have little influence over campaigns and political candidates? Do you wonder how you can compete with the influence of those who can write a $10 million check to the candidate or Super PAC of their choice? Well, now there seems to be a way.

FactCheck.org, a creation of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, part of the University of Pennsylvania, is well known for evaluating the truthfulness of statements by politicians. Lesser known is FlackCheck.org, an entity created to "hold the media accountable for their reporting on political campaigns." It has launched an effort, called "Stand by Your Ad," that allows average citizens to actively participate in this process.

The Communications Act does not allow local television or radio stations or the Federal Communications Commission to censor or alter political advertising from candidates for federal office (Section 312 of the Communications Act). Stations typically extend this application to candidates for office at all levels (although they are not legally required to do so). This requirement does not extend to third party advertising from political organizations outside the control of the candidate. Thus, ads from groups like American Crossroads or Priorities USA must meet the same requirements for accuracy as do product ads. Stations are not required to accept advertising from third party groups. If they do, they are responsible legally for material that airs on their stations and are required "to act with reasonable care" to ensure that ads are not false or misleading.

PACs and super PACs have already spent almost $121 million and have received more than $220 million in contributions – and we still have more than four months to go before Election Day (see www.opensecrets.org). Stations are taking in huge amounts of money, charging top rates for such ads, and have little incentive to do anything to negatively impact this income. In fact, CBS President Les Moonves has said publicly, "Super PACs may be bad for Americans but they’re very good for CBS." Obviously, the same is true for all other stations and networks.

So, what can you do? Let your local station managers know that you expect them to meet their legal obligations for truthful advertising, including advertising they choose to accept from the PACs and super PACs (yes, it is a choice!). . Just go to 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. 

In case you're wondering, there are not a large number of false claims being created. Like all effective advertising, there are just a few of them that are endlessly repeated.  By encouraging stations to use their right to insist on the accuracy of these third party ads, stations can turn this windfall of money into protecting the public they serve.

Our democracy depends on an informed and active citizenry to survive. Take at least one small step to prevent falsehoods from overwhelming the political process and our independence. Send that message to our station managers today!

Marilyn McLeod and Carol Schreiber are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County.