Why broadcasters must air political ads even if they contain misinformation

Politicians use public airwaves to persuade American voters every election year — and broadcasters must air their ads, no matter how controversial — due to a law passed nearly nine decades ago. The Communications Act of 1934 states broadcasters have “no power of censorship” over any “legally qualified candidate” for office, and it requires stations to offer their lowest rates available ahead of an election.

University of Georgia professor Joseph Watson, who also guided the George W. Bush administration on telecommunications policy, said while everyday commercial advertisers can face allegations of stretching the truth, they’re at least required by federal law to back up their claims with facts. Those rules do not apply to political candidates.

“So a cereal company can’t lie about their cereal, but a candidate can lie about their politics?” asked “CBS Mornings” co-host Tony Dokoupil.

“That is absolutely true,” Watson replied.

Lately, according to Watson, the lying has gotten both bolder and more frequent.

“It has not been historically as much of a problem prior to 2016,” Watson said. “I would say, after 2016, the world has changed a lot.”

Watson pointed to commercials, like an ad from President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign which stated: “If Trump gets his way, Social Security benefits will run out in just three years from now.”

It earned four Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact-checker, which is a rating reserved for “Whoppers.”

“The thought of Americans who are living on fixed incomes thinking that’s going to go away is terrifying,” Watson said.

One piece of misinformation going around this election cycle is how the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s ad said: “Blue state liberals stole the election from President Trump.”

In an ad from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, he told viewers: “I’ll make sure our elections are never stolen again.”

“The amount of misinformation we’re seeing at a midterm cycle is more than I’ve seen in the past in a presidential election cycle,” Watson said. “If this is what the midterm looks like, and the ads are this aggressive and contain so much misinformation, what is it going to look like in the 2024 presidential cycle?”

Bill Whittle, the director of sales for CBS affiliate WFSB in Hartford, Connecticut, said television stations must air those ads. He said he has not rejected a political ad in 20 years.

He showed Dokoupil the station’s system for reviewing ads, in which there’s an option to reject political commercials, but not for lying.

“They have to say, ‘It’s paid for by’ or ‘Sponsored by,'” Whittle said. “The candidate has to use their name, and it has to be on the screen for at least four seconds.”

“Everything else, fair game?” Dokoupil asked.

“Pretty much,” responded Whittle.

In addition to accepting candidate ads, broadcasters must run them without edits. Watson said there is a potential option for stations interested in flagging ads from candidates.

“They could put a disclaimer at the start of an ad that might say, you know: ‘The following is a paid political advertisement that may contain information that’s not been verified or validated.’ There should be no preclusion to do that. But the challenge for broadcasters is, any disclaimers that they put at the start of an ad can’t be paid for by the candidate,” Watson said.

The Communications Act of 1934 only applies to broadcast airwaves, and doesn’t include cable networks or social media companies, which have the power to reject or remove misleading political content.

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