WASHINGTON – It is the familiar call that marks the modern election season: candidates crying foul over television ads produced by opposing political parties and interest groups. But unlike previous years, some local television stations are starting to respond to the complaints by yanking ads that are called contentious.
For instance, the Indiana Democratic Party recently ran an ad attacking Republican congressional candidate Chris Chocola for the way he ran his former business.
"... Cuts for the workers. Bonuses for the bosses. Sound familiar? Call Chris Chocola and tell him to practice Hoosier values, not Enron values," the ad says.
Chocola complained the ad was a cheap shot. One Indiana television station manager looked at it and agreed.
"The spot that associates Chocola with Enron and WorldCom is real low and real hard, in our opinion. A boxing referee would take a point away for a blow like that," wrote Jim Behling, president and general manager of WNDU in South Bend, Ind., in a letter to Kyle Osterhout of Media Strategies, which produced the ad.
In fact, the ad linking Chocola with Enron was yanked by four Indiana TV station managers.
The Republican Party claims it's had particular success in getting television stations to remove so-called "third-party ads" that the GOP finds objectionable.
"We have successfully gotten [ads] taken off the air because [they] were so false and so misleading in 16 stations in six different states," said Steve Schmidt, communications director for the National Republican Campaign Committee. "These ads are off the air because they were found to be so defamatory."
Democrats also lay claim to getting an ad aimed at Democratic incumbent Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas pulled off the air.
"Edwards opposed President Bush's tax cuts for families ... And Edwards voted against a $600 rebate that put money back into the hands of families," says the ad, produced by the Republican Party of Texas.
Three television stations in the Waco area pulled the ad after Edwards complained.
"He's a pretty conservative Democrat," said Jenny Backus of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He actually has supported a lot of tax cuts, co-authored a lot of them. He went to the station and said: 'They mischaracterized my record. I co-sponsored the marriage penalty.' That's why it got pulled down."
A candidate for federal office can say almost anything in his or her own ad and it is considered protected political speech. But ads from political parties, union groups or special interest groups are not protected. When questions are raised, television stations elect to play it safe.
"Oftentimes, the TV stations are called upon to resolve conflicts, and it's very, very difficult," said Ron Faucheux, editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "So many [stations] are saying, 'We don't have to resolve this, we would just as soon have these ads not run at all.'"
Sometimes the issue ads are re-vamped, but just enough to get re-aired. One offending word is changed and they are put back on the air in a matter of hours.
In one case, the changes were so minor viewers who were asked said they were unable to tell the difference.