WASHINGTON — Political attack ads were under attack themselves in the nation’s capital on Thursday, with TV broadcasters facing the loss of hundreds of millions in ad revenues.
To the delight of campaign finance reformers, the Federal Election Commission appeared poised to endorse a ban on “issue ads” paid for by special interest groups — otherwise known as attack ads — in the 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
Issue ads, bought with “soft” money, have been one of the most popular means by which special interest groups support their candidates, since they don’t have to reveal themselves. The new ban would apply to ads that mention a federal candidate or are paid for with unlimited corporate or union contributions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others leading the campaign finance reform fight say issue ads have poisoned the well. Many such spots claim to be about issues, but really are thinly disguised attacks on a candidate’s opponent.
The FEC was expected to take a final vote on the blackout late Thursday night; a series of preliminary votes during the day largely kept the ban intact.
The FEC did agree to exempt programming that broadcasters aren’t paid for, but do address political issues, such as latenight talkshows, which often make hay of candidates. The FEC also wanted to protect PSAs that mention a candidate, as well as talkshows.
The advertising prohibition is included in reform legislation signed by President Bush earlier this year and forwarded to the FEC for implementation.
The National Assn. of Broadcasters is among a coalition of organizations challenging the new law in court, saying the issue ad provision violates the First Amendment.
Otherwise, the NAB has remained silent on the attack ad debate.
In the 2000 federal election, broadcasters reaped an estimated $623 million in revenues from political ads, with a large chunk paid for by special interest groups, according to U. of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Kenneth Goldstein, who runs a special ad project examining elections.
The $623 million figure was nearly double what was spent during the 1998 federal election, meaning that 2004 ad revenues from issue ads could have exceeded $1 billion.
“As a political scientist, I’m obviously a big believer in building strong political parties,” Goldstein said in one of his studies. “But this type of advertising does nothing to strengthen parties; it’s all about electioneering on behalf of specific candidates.”
During the 2004 presidential race, the ban would effectively mean that special interest groups can’t run attack ads nationally from late December 2003 to June 2004, since the primaries are staggered. In other federal races, the blackout would be in effect for 30 days before the primary, and 60 days before the general election.