King’s call for ads’ removal a ‘political response’ that rarely gets ads off air, experts say

Posted Sept. 25, 2012, at 2:33 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 25, 2012, at 6:21 p.m.
Angus King
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Angus King

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Senate candidate Angus King presses the state’s TV stations to pull two Republican ads from the air, his campaign is resorting to a common political tactic that rarely works in actually getting ads removed but that campaigns turn to as a way to respond to political attacks.

King’s campaign Monday called on TV stations in the Bangor, Portland and Presque Isle markets to remove two ads sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, that target King for his involvement in the wind energy business before he became a U.S. Senate candidate in March.

At least three stations, WLBZ 2 in Bangor, and WGME 13 and WCSH 6 in Portland, decided to continue airing the advertising after receiving King’s complaint, the general managers for those stations said. Other stations haven’t responded to requests for comment or have declined comment.

In its formal complaint to TV stations, King’s campaign cites federal law that allows stations to reject ads from third-party groups — such as the Republican senatorial committee — and requires that stations take steps to ensure the ads’ reliability. Under federal law, broadcast stations have a duty to “protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising,” and they can be held liable for the content in third-party ads they air.

But making the case that an ad is deceptive or misleading is far from clear cut, said Mark Braden, a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee. As a result, he said, calls for an ad to be removed generally go unheeded.

“Nine times out of 10, that doesn’t happen,” said Braden, who has no affiliation with the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They only pull the ad if it’s a demonstratively false statement.”

What’s likely happening, he said, is a maneuver designed to create doubt in voters’ minds about an ad’s truthfulness.

“They’re really doing it because it gives them a way to make the argument that it’s not true,” Braden said. “It’s a clever political response to a charge.”

But, such a response from a campaign could also risk drawing too much attention to a negative ad attacking its candidate. “It’s a two-edged sword that could come back and cut you,” Braden said. “You have to be thoughtful as to which ones you would do this on.”

In its complaint, the King campaign tries to make the case that the Republican ads broadcast blatant falsehoods about the independent former governor’s wind business. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has so far spent $681,000 on two ads targeting King, according to expenditure reports on file with the Federal Election Commission.

One ad features five people portrayed to be residents who live near the 22-turbine Record Hill wind project in western Maine for which King handled state and local permitting and in which he and business partner Rob Gardiner held a 10 percent stake. A man in the 30-second spot says King “was making millions and millions of dollars,” a statement the King campaign disputed in its TV station complaints, citing news reports that King netted about $212,000 from his wind business and saying the ad creates the impression that the millions in earnings were from the wind installation.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee shot back in an email to reporters Monday that King has indeed made millions of dollars, even if he didn’t make it all from the wind business. The committee pointed to King’s financial disclosure forms, which show the former governor’s net worth is between $5.3 million and $23.6 million and show he took in between $317,000 and $3 million in investment income between January 2011 and May 2012.

The ad’s quote that “Angus was making millions and millions of dollars” didn’t say explicitly that King was making the money from the Record Hill wind installation.

It’s an “uphill battle” for a candidate’s campaign to prove a political advertisement is blatantly false, said Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“I think they can make that argument,” he said. “Whether it will be dispositive or not will be a matter ultimately for a federal judge to decide, and federal judges have been very loath to get into political rhetoric.”

It’s also a struggle to take on a third-party group’s advertising because well-funded outside groups have lawyers working for them who make sure ads are substantiated and not vulnerable to legal action, Braden said.

“The real concern here is the political hit of making a charge and then having to pull it back because it’s inaccurate,” he said. “Virtually no one that’s a professional in the business would want to say something they know is not true. It doesn’t make any sense politically.”

Most of Maine’s television stations haven’t yet publicly responded to the King campaign’s request, but they’re in an unenviable position, said Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters.

“Broadcasters are kind of damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” she said. “If you leave the ad on the air, you do leave yourself open to the libel suit. If you remove the ad, you run the risk of being accused of trampling on people’s First Amendment rights.”

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