Should TV Stations Ban False Political Ads?

A photo of a politician pointing into a TV camera.
While some people think TV stations should ban false political ads, it's not easy to pull them from the airwaves. Photo © Paul Thomasl / Getty Images

"Lies!" That's what many politicians would say after seeing an opponent's campaign ad on television. Those politicians often demand that TV stations ban advertisements that they claim contain false information.

Voters often wonder why TV stations don't investigate political advertisements to verify their truthfulness before allowing them to be shown on television. That way, the alleged lies never hit the airwaves.

There are several reasons that TV stations don't do this.

The Government Prevents Stations from Censoring Political Ads

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government agency that regulates broadcasters and sets the rules for the way TV and radio stations operate. If you study the Communications Act of 1934, you'll find a long list of requirements governing how stations must accept political advertising.

It's a complicated government document, but broadcasters interpret it to mean that they are not in the business of censoring the statements of a political candidate. Sure, a news reporter may edit a candidate's 30-minute speech into a 60-second story, and broadcasters are allowed to generally ignore fringe candidates for president.

But when it comes to political advertisements, TV stations are understandably leery of taking action that would appear to be censorship. They could lose their government broadcast license.

Who Determines What Makes a Political Ad False?

If TV stations were allowed to censor political ads, it still would be extremely tough to determine what makes a political ad false. Without some guidelines, every political candidate would claim that every one of their opponents' ads was filled with falsehoods while their own ads were beacons of truth.

For example, if a bill came up in Congress that contained both some tax cuts and some tax hikes, a U.S. senator might struggle with whether to support it or oppose it. If he votes yes, when re-election time comes, a rival would say the senator wants tax hikes. If he votes no, the rival could say the senator opposed tax cuts.

Both answers are partially true, partially false. When that's put into a campaign commercial, it would be difficult for a TV station to decide what to do. One station could decide since the ad is somewhat true, to allow it to hit the air. Another station could take the opposite view.

That would put both stations in the middle of a campaign controversy. Each candidate's campaign would have a station it said did the right thing, and one that it would say did the wrong thing. Both stations could expect to be blasted for their decision, which becomes a no-win scenario. So TV stations are likely relieved to say the FCC won't let them censor campaign commercials.

Fact-Checking Ads Can Be Impractical

Campaign commercials aren't documentaries any more than TV ads for laundry detergent. Both use common persuasive advertising techniques designed to convince you to act -- by voting or by washing clothes.

There's not much demand that TV stations launch a test to see if that laundry soap indeed gets clothes their brightest, versus only somewhat bright. A station could spend most of its resources checking political ads when there's other work to be done.

Say a campaign submitted an ad to broadcast. It could take a station in a typical DMA weeks to verify the ad's claims. A station would likely have to use members of its news department or hire an outsider to do the job.

A campaign doesn't have weeks to wait. In the last weeks before election day, it's not unusual for a campaign to create a commercial and deliver it to a TV station for immediate broadcast. It does the campaign no good if the ad isn't approved until after the election. Many ads are neither totally true nor totally false, so there would be a lot of interpretation.

A station's attorneys might even have to get involved. When there are multiple candidates in multiple campaigns, the commercials would pile up as they await approval.

As National Public Radio points out, while stations feel they must accept a candidate's campaign ads no matter what the content, the same isn't true for third-party and superPAC ads which aren't directly tied to the campaign.

Some TV stations in Iowa refused to air an ad from an animal welfare political group that criticized a congressman. The stations felt the ad contained images that were too graphic to air.

For voters, having an attitude of "buyer beware" applies to political commercials, just as it would for some incredible new product that seems too good to be true. The more voters educate themselves, the more skeptical they will likely be when they see campaign ads designed to sway their vote.

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