DES MOINES — Iowa has long been on the front lines of presidential campaigns, from its first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses through general election battles for its Electoral College votes.
Now, it’s on the front lines of another campaign — to eliminate deceptive political ads from the airwaves.
With the Campaign Media Analysis Group reporting the presidential candidates and third-party groups spending more than $27 million in Iowa television markets so far this campaign, Kathleen Hall Jamieson thinks it is incumbent on broadcasters to demand accuracy in the ads they air.
“If this doesn’t happen in places like Iowa, well, we can’t expect it in many other places,” said Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, home of flackcheck.org and factcheck.org.
“You’ve got a culture in Iowa where you get to start the election process for us,” Jamieson said. “You have an electorate that has greater chance to become informed over time … so it should be easier to keep this problem down, to keep it under control in a place like Iowa.”
If only it were that easy, said Jeff Stein, a professor of digital communications at William Penn University in West Des Moines and the executive director of the Iowa Broadcast News Association.
The problem is that stations are, “to a large degree, powerless to refuse the ad,” he said. “Their legal counsel will tell them they have to accept ads from bona fide candidates and charge them the lowest rate available.”
Jamieson and Stein agree that there is no financial incentive for stations to refuse ads.
Although the most recent quarterly report shows broadcast stations “are making a lot of money,” Jamieson acknowledges that broadcasters saw their ad revenues fall during the recession.
“This is their first chance in the battleground to become highly profitable,” she said. “They are not eager to turn any ad away and tell campaigns to fix it before they will run it.”
To some degree, Stein said, the test for accepting an ad is whether the check that pays for it is good.
“Any advertiser who comes in with a prepared ad and money to pay for it will be looked on with favor whether the ad is issue-oriented or consumer goods,” he said.
The danger is that if political ads become “so skewed that they taint the whole block of commercial messages, you’ll find the regular businesses will stay off the air,” he added.
The problem of deceptive ads is not new, Jamieson said, and she does not believe political ads are worse today than ever.
Across time, she said, political advertising “has more accurate claims than inaccurate claims.”
However, third-party ads typically are more attack-driven, she said, and there are more third-party ads than ever. Third-party groups not associated with the presidential campaigns may outspend the candidates’ organizations.
Stein does not think broadcasters want to be the arbiter in political debates.
“There is a problem when you refuse to take ads when your objection is content-based, and it might be open to interpretation,” Stein said.
To help stations that can legitimately say they are overwhelmed with the ads, Jamieson said, Flackcheck.org will provide step-by-step instructions for fact-checking. If they ask, Flackcheck.org will review the ads and send stations its analysis.
“I’m sympathetic to the proposition that this is a costly enterprise, but the airwaves are publicly owned and there is, I think, an obligation to the community to try to engage in good journalism,” she said.
Stein agrees that broadcasters should make an effort to report on the credibility of political ads. However, he believes Iowa audiences have had enough exposure to political advertising to be pretty good judges.
“I think the audience is savvy enough to know that when it’s a commercial that they should be skeptical, their antennae should be up,” he said. “I frankly think the audience sees so many ads they are tuning them out and the true impact of the ads is far less than these activist groups would like to believe.”