FlackCheck.org leverages the Web to tell stations: Check third-party ad facts


Lincoln impersonator Fritz Klein reflects on a question as he travels by train from Baltimore to Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)
February 17, 2012

If the current political advertising model existed during the election of 1864, could Abraham Lincoln have been elected president?

That’s the question being posed by the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FlackCheck.org, which wants you to send a message to television stations nationwide: They can and should refuse to air misleading or false third-party political advertisements.

The site — created to crowdsource and make viral the debunking of political ads — is leveraging the power of the Web to incite a movement, reminding television stations that regulations, while requiring stations to air nearly every single ad from political candidates, do not require them to air third-party ads.

“What we’re trying to do is get rid of the deceptions in third-party ads by having the stations refuse to air them,” said Annenberg Public Policy Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson during an interview at The Post on Friday.

This year’s election cycle is on track to be the most expensive in history, with third-party groups able to spend unlimited amounts of money in an attempt to convince voters — in some cases using powerfully negative and occasionally misleading or false narratives and images — that their candidate is the best candidate.

The FlackCheck.org campaign, “Stand by Your Ad,” which launched Thursday, gives visitors an opportunity to target individual stations with a customized e-mail calling on them to refuse to air ads from third-party groups that contain misleading and/or false statements. The service offers users an opportunity to send a message to all but 100 stations in the national grid and copies FlackCheck.org on every message. The carbon copy allows the organization to keep track of messages being sent and identify markets where they believe more media attention is needed. “We purchased access wherever we could and made phone calls wherever we can,” said Jamieson, adding that FlackCheck was trying to get phone numbers for stations as well.

The grass-roots campaign — a take on the mail-your-congressman-approach — is the first, said Jamieson, of its kind calling for this particular type of action on the part of stations.

Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor who is not new to the fight against misleading and false political ads, is passionate about bringing an end to the practice of stations airing any and all ads they are provided without running them through a fact-checking process first.

“We basically lose control of the election process,” Jamieson said. “Money dominates. And you don’t want to elect that way.”

The rationale, said Jamieson, couldn’t be clearer: Insisting on accuracy is an exercise of a station’s First Amendment rights. With this in mind, Jamieson envisions a new model, where newspaper editorial boards remind communities of stations’ rights, viewers then hold their stations accountable, and stations, in turn, hold third-party groups and their donors accountable. All the while, reporters, said Jamieson, would be keeping track — something she believes they’ve been doing well this election cycle.

“The debates have been excellent,” she said.

But with newsroom cutbacks and the disappearance of local papers, there is a question of labor: Who vets all of the ads before they air?

“We do,” said Jamieson simply, referring to national fact-checking groups such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. And these organizations would not be alone. The fact-checking process, said Jamieson, could be done by a station’s local news teams as well. The misleads and falsehoods, she said, are easy for any reasonable person to spot, not to mention a local or national political reporter on top of their beat.

Once a major market debunks an ad, other stations could use that as a basis to reject the ad, outlines Jamieson. And if another station chose to run it, they could be left vulnerable to critics demanding an explanation as to why they would perpetuate a misleading or false message.

Asked about whether this would mean stations operate outside of their best, financial interest, Jamieson said the stations could have their cake and eat it, too.

“They can have the money and insist on accuracy,” Jamieson said.

And aside from the stations, the candidates— all of whom have called for accuracy on the part of independent groups — stand to benefit as well. “It’s in the candidate’s self-interest to not let that happen,” said Jamieson of the amalgamated, negative impact on the entire field of candidates when third-party groups flood the airwaves with false and/or misleading statements. Talk among political analysts of a brokered Republican convention could be seen as fallout from precisely this dynamic.

Along with the form, the site offers a series of videos going after stations and third-party group donors. And political consultants and even the candidates themselves will be placed under the campaign’s spotlight. The site has a “coming soon” banner over that category of political ad messengers.

“We want reporters to hold the candidates and consultants accountable for their ads,” Jamieson said.

The message, said Jamieson, is this: “We live in your community. We want a campaign that will make our community proud and ensure that the best candidate is elected. Tolerating deception where you could eliminate it doesn’t do that. This is win-win for you. You can have the money and clean up our campaigns simultaneously, and your community is going to be proud when you do it . . . and it’s going to be ashamed when you don’t.”

“The superheroes,” continued Jamieson, “can be the station managers.”

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