TV stations powerless to block objectionable political ads

5:51 AM, Aug 8, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - Twin Cities television stations are powerless to block a Congressional candidate's controversial ads containing graphic images and questionable claims.

Gary Boisclair, a Tea Party supporter running in the 5th District DFL primary against incumbent Democrat Keith Ellison, purchased air time on several local stations, including KARE 11.

One ad ties Ellison to an Islamist extremism, without any factual basis, and shows pictures purported to be Christian children murdered by Muslims.  Another ad shows images of dead babies purported to be aborted fetuses, and blames Ellison because of his support of reproductive rights.

By federal law, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, TV stations cannot reject the ads from legally registered federal candidates who are actively campaigning.

The air time must be made available at the "lowest unit rate," if it's a direct ad by the candidate's own campaign, rather than a third party such as PAC.   Furthermore, broadcasters are barred from altering the ad in any way.

"The station loses any right to censor if it's a political ad," Twin Cities attorney Terrance Moore told KARE Tuesday.

"Likewise, they're not responsible for the content. The FCC can't go after the stations for what is said or the images in those ads."

Moore, who has served as legal counsel for the Minnesota Broadcasters Association for many years, said the federal law is designed to prevent broadcasters from influencing the election through uneven treatment of campaigns.

It's part of a larger set of rules aimed at placing all candidates on an even footing, when it comes to ads and appearances on that station.  He said the federal government is trying balance competing goods and evils.

"We don't want a broadcaster to be able to shape, edit, alter the presentation the candidate wants to make of himself," Moore explained.

"But, because the stations can't censor, they're not responsible for it."

Disclaimers are allowed, though, within reason. When the first ads appeared during KARE 11's 4 p.m. newscast Tuesday, the station ran a full-screen slate preceding the ad intended to prepare viewers for what they were about to see.

It read, "The following political advertisement contains scenes that may be disturbing to children. Viewer discretion is advised."

Boisclair is a native of Buffalo, Minn. who listed a West Virginia address when filed to run for office.  Law does not require congressional candidates to live in the state where they're seeking office.

"I am fighting for the unborn," Boisclair said during a phone interview with KARE 11 Tuesday. "Only by making people are people going to wake up and do something about it."

As a Tea Party backer he stands little chance of beating the Democratic incumbent in a Democratic primary in one of the most reliably Democratic congressional districts in the nation. 

But none of that can be taken into consideration, according to federal broadcasting regulations, if Boisclair is legally registered to run in that primary.the censorship ban is found in the original 1934 Federal Communications Act.

The government agency that regulates broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission -- or FCC -- summarizes the candidate advertising rules at this location on its website.

The rules have changed since the 1930's from time to time based on court opinions, or other legal interpretations of what lawmakers intended whent they wrote the original bill.

For example, one court allowed broadcasters to limit the offensive fetus photos to the midnight to 6 a.m. hours when children were least likely to be watching TV. Unfortunately, that ruling was challenged and a federal appeals court agreed with the anti-abortion candidates who brought the case forward.

"There really is no good thing to tell the viewers because of the nature of the beast," Jim DuBois of the Minnesota Association of Broadcasters told KARE.

He said TV stations have more leeway in contesting erroneous and misleading material when it comes to candidates for local and state offices, and third-party "issue ads" can be treated differently.

But when it comes to candidates for federal offices, broadcasters must take a hands-off approach.  Boisclair is not required to disclose the sources of his funding until after the primary.

"This is the way it's been for a long time. We've been very fortunate in Minnesota because we haven't seen a lot of offensive federal candidate ads."

DuBois said that anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, attempted to air similar ads in Minnesota prior to the presidential preference straw poll last February.  But Terry's efforts were stymied when he was unable to prove he as an actual contender in a large block of states.

Several viewers called and wrote KARE 11 Tuesday objecting to the ads, asking why the station accepted them. 

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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