As the election season and football season run concurrently, one has daydreams about the possibility of throwing penalty flags on misleading political ads. Sure there have been complaints this football season that there have been too many penalty flags thrown, but it is just the opposite in politics – not enough penalty flags.
This is not a partisan complaint. Shrieks come from both sides of the political aisle about unfair, out-of-context or malicious charges. And, the defenses on both sides ring about the same as well: ‘Here’s our source, see for yourself, that’s our interpretation.’
A cold reading often backs up the defensive posture — if you don’t bother with the context. How about the mailer in the Assembly District 64 race running through South LA to a piece of Long Beach where one mailer quoted the Long Beach Press Telegram that “Casting a vote for (Prophet) Walker is a gamble.” That’s what the Press Telegram said. However, it endorsed Walker and thus urged voters to take the gamble.
Out-of-context. Throw the flag. But, what’s equivalent to a five-yard penalty in the political world?
You can imagine lots of penalties that would sting. A mailer is found untruthful – the campaign must forgo its next scheduled mailer. Financial penalties would be tough since all campaigns are always short of money – just check your daily emails. Try to use the legal system to destroy your opponent; you’re out of the game for this cycle.
The problem, of course, is none of this would work. The First Amendment rightly forbids government interfering with political speech.
The only retribution comes with independent observers playing the role of football referees making comment, but without the power to penalize.
The Sacramento Bee tries to ferret out truth in political advertising then post findings on a scale of True, Somewhat Misleading, Mostly Misleading and Outright Lie.
Yet, as former Bee deputy managing editor William Endicott wrote in an opinion piece, “distortions of fact are routine, and The Bee’s “Ad Watch,” for instance, runs only once, while the ads run night after night.”
Bob Stern, former president of the Center of Government Studies suggested that perhaps a media consortium could be formed with multiple media outlets in the state to shame any wayward ads.
Even Stern doubts this would work. Would the Sacramento Bee’s readers be interested in Los Angeles assembly races? Would Los Angeles Times readers be interested in a Sacramento area congressional race? As most political observers will tell you it is hard enough getting residents interested in their own local races.
So it is up to the local media outlets to do the refereeing as best they can. In the case of the out-of-context assembly race mentioned above Stern recommended that the “paper should run a front page story blasting the mailer and correcting the record.”
Don’t expect television and radio news bureaus to get involved in such an effort of correcting the record. Too much spent by the political campaigns on those platforms.