Political attack ads are getting too nasty even for TV station managers.That’s saying quite a lot, considering that broadcasters can hardly afford to take a pass on ad revenues. But many are doing just that, out of a concern that the more virulent spots contain blatant lies and could land them in legal trouble. What is unnerving is the gray area. Are station managers are qualified to make such a call? Who is to say that a an incumbents running for reelection won’t pressure TV stations back home to reject an opponent’s ad, especially in a tight race? Broadcasters are under no obligation to carry attack spots, officially known as “issue” ads. Stations are required under the First Amendment to air a political ad in which the candidate appears. Attack ads, paid for by political parties and other third-party groups, don’t enjoy the same First Amendment protection. Attack ads have proliferated over the last 20 years, turning the airwaves into a political wrestling match. They also are a revenue bonanza for broadcasters; the 2002 election season is projected to generate more than $1 billion in ad revenues. Station managers have every right to reject an ad that is deceptive or false, whether it’s an for Pepsi or Sen. Ted Kennedy. Conversely, stations shouldn’t alter political discourse by deferring to campaigns threatening defamation suits, as many campaigns already have done. Only recently have station managers begun turning down ads on a regular basis. But can Americans trust their TV station to be fair and objective when deciding which ads to carry? Alliance for Better Campaigns topper Paul Taylor believes it is a worrisome trend, considering the room for abuse. Unlike politicians, TV stations don’t have to account for their choices — or political alliances — unless called on the legal carpet. This is unfortunate. Station managers are just that, station managers. It’s fine to play a round or two of golf with their favorite politicians; it’s not OK for them to play political consultant. The crown of democracy isn’t theirs to wear.
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