All of us in the advertising and media business should be concerned about the repercussions our industry will most certainly confront as this election season is analyzed and deconstructed over the next months and years.
First and foremost, we need to ask why the rules and regulations requiring honesty and factual proof of claims are required for brand advertising, but not for political ads. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s laws, as outlined at their website: “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence. The Federal Trade Commission enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears. When the FTC finds a case of fraud perpetrated on consumers, the agency files actions in federal district court for immediate and permanent orders to stop scams; prevent fraudsters from perpetrating scams in the future; freeze their assets; and get compensation for victims.”
In a year when lies and blatant dishonesty have been political currency, and when outright mistruths (advanced by the media) have marked the final commercial push by the Trump campaign, why do these basic consumer rights to know the facts not apply? And why do voters who are being scammed by fraudulent claims have no rights for protection?
In 2014, according to The Washington Post, “A federal judge struck down… campaign truth… issuing a significant First Amendment decision that pushes the state out of the business of trying to referee “political truth” in campaign advertising. In an opinion that cited authorities ranging from the Supreme Court to the House of Cards character Frank Underwood, federal District Court Judge Timothy S. Black said Americans should be free to battle out their political ideas without a government overseer ruling whether what they say is true. ‘We do not want the government deciding what is political truth — for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it,’ Judge Black wrote in his opinion. ‘Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide.'”
The rules for political advertising, in the context of the wave of mistruths spouted across the political spectrum in recent elections, are all too obviously outdated. As reported in the Broadcast Law Blog, “It’s very basic – broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is.”
Compounding this truly questionable application of First Amendment rights is the reluctance of television news media, and especially local TV news, to challenge the gift horse of political advertising by calling out mistruths and lies. Citizens, based on current federal law, are being left to their intellectual curiosity to judge the claims of politicians. Intellect is a core human quality that appears to be missing from much of the political decision-making reality in this election year.
The presidential election of 2016 may prove to be a turning point in TV and online news reporting, and in federal campaign advertising regulations. With the departure of Roger Ailes from Fox News, the potential emergence of the Trump News Network under the aegis of Breitbart.com leader and Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, and the elevation of Trump’s candidacy thanks to a barrage of free media coverage, the TV news landscape will be dramatically altered. Trust in TV news – and journalism — as a valid source of truthful knowledge is at an all-time low, and is unlikely to ever recover.
It’s unfortunate that the news media that invest in truth-telling and relevant investigative journalism are being painted with the same negative brush as media outlets that are surrogates for partisan political operatives.
In the last week of this campaign, virtually every major television and online news media were consumed with the announcement by FBI head James Comey that new e-mails on the computer of Anthony Weiner were being reviewed for possible illegal communications by Clinton. On November 2, Fox News anchor Bret Baier reported that sources within the FBI advised him that an indictment is “likely” in the case of pay-for-play at the Clinton Foundation, “barring some obstruction in some way” from the Justice Department. A day later, Baier acknowledged his information was inaccurate, and “apologized.” Trump’s campaign, however, continued to include the “leak” and the Weiner story as integrated “facts” in one of his campaign’s most aggressive TV ad campaigns.
On November 4, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, as reported in New York Magazine, acknowledged that “‘The damage is done to Hillary Clinton.’ In a fleeting moment of delusional naïveté, one might have thought that Conway was expressing her dismay at the pernicious effect reckless journalism can have on a campaign — sure, she wants to defeat Clinton, but she wants to do so fair and square. But Conway hastened to explain that the ‘damage’ here was very good damage, because the inaccurate story helped the American people understand the truth about Hillary Clinton.”
It seems obvious the inaccurate story, fostered and advanced by Fox News, was designed to advance the lies the Trump campaign have put at the center of this election. Billy Bush was humiliated and punished by NBCU for his role in being a party to Trump’s misogyny, but Fox News is complicit in Baier’s actions by failing to penalize him in any way or accepting any form of corporate culpability.
According to PolitiFact, 25% of Secretary Clinton’s claims are mostly false, false, or “pants on fire false.” 54% of her statements are true or mostly true. By comparison, 70% of Trump’s claims are false and only 15% have even a modicum of truth. If not the government, and if not the media itself, where does the average person have to turn for truth? How can we trust any politicians when outright lying is a basic and accepted reality of most campaigns?
We have become a society that considers truth to be an obstacle in the path of our opinions, no matter how misguided or dangerous they may be. Although the Internet and social media are making it more difficult to get away with lying, people seem to be more and more accepting of lies when they reinforce and support our own personal truths. For our humble advertising business, this is a dangerous path to follow. Media and the advertising community should be at the forefront of advocacy for and insistence on truth, or we will be standing by as our foundations erode.
When we as a people lose all trust in our institutions, and we are unable or unwilling to believe that the media is acting in the public interest and necessity, we are on the road to anarchy. If it’s not apparent to you that this election season has moved us well on the way down that road, then please share with me why not. I am interested in hearing your version of the truth.