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How to tame super PAC ads

By Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Special to CNN
January 29, 2012 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Newt Gingrich has been a target and a beneficiary of deceptive PAC advertising, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Newt Gingrich has been a target and a beneficiary of deceptive PAC advertising, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candidates for U.S. Senate in Mass. are seeking to prevent deceptive super PAC ads
  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Such ads could be stopped nationwide if TV stations refused to air them
  • She says stations are required to air candidates' ads, but not those of independent groups
  • Jamieson: Ads that distort candidates' records shouldn't be given air time

Editor's note: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, home of www.FactCheck.org and its sister site, www.FlackCheck.org. She is the author or co-author of 15 books including: "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Messages Shaped the 2008 Election," "Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment" and "unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

(CNN) -- For more than half a year, super PACs and other third-party advertisers have aired misleading attacks against Republican Massachusetts incumbent Sen. Scott Brown and his probable Democratic opponent, professor Elizabeth Warren. (You can see a sample of these ads at FlackCheck.org.).

By calling on these groups to stay out of their contest, Brown and Warren are attempting to do something about "air pollution" in their state. There's a way that Massachusetts viewers and TV and radio stations in the state can help them achieve that goal.

The same option is available in the presidential contest, in which the leading Republican presidential contenders have called repeatedly on their third-party champions and challengers to forgo deception. Like those of Warren and Brown, their complaints are justified.

In South Carolina and in Florida, the pro-Romney super PAC that calls itself "Restoring Our Future" wrongly accused former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of supporting legislation facilitating abortion in China and of being "fined" $300,000 for ethics violations when instead he was required to reimburse the costs of the investigation.

The same pseudonymous group also invited the false conclusion that former Sen. Rick Santorum had voted to restore voting rights to felons who were still serving time.

To this mix, in South Carolina the pro-Stephen Colbert super PAC that styled itself "Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow " added a funny but flawed ad that showed "Mitt the Ripper" shredding the names of companies that had met their demise under (here's the misleading part) someone else's watch.

Romney's history at Bain elicited another third-party volley in Florida in the form of an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' (AFSCME) ad that wrongly attempted to enmesh the former governor in Medicare fraud at a Bain-owned company.

Not to be outdone, the pro-Gingrich super PAC cloaked in the name "Winning Our Future" has trafficked out the false allegation that Romney's health reform in Massachusetts is "government-run health care" (a claim repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers) that "sent costs spiraling out of control, hiking premiums, squeezing household budgets" when, instead, as Politifact noted, "cost increases for individual households are largely due to the fact that health care costs have been rising across the country."

While recent court decisions ensure that uprooting super PACS from the political landscape is a fool's errand, making their deceptive televised claims vanish is easier. The reason? Where, with some exceptions, TV and radio stations are required to air (and are barred from censoring) federal candidates' ads, no such requirements govern the messages of outside groups. And, significantly, stations have the right to insist on the accuracy of the "independent expenditure" ads they accept.

So the answer to "air pollution" by super PACs is simple: Television and radio stations should just say no to misleading third-party ads. To increase their incentive to do so in a world where ad revenue bolsters the bottom line, viewers might want to tweet or blog (or send something once known as a letter) applauding responsible station action or decrying business as usual.

To find out which Florida TV stations have aired ads flagged by the major fact checking organizations, go to FlackCheck.org.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

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