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Political Advertising New Subject of Scrutiny

When Minnesota Democrats recently began running radio ads accusing John Kline of seeking to "end Social Security as we know it," the Republican congressional candidate and his allies fought back.

Kline wrote stations, asking them to stop running the ad on grounds it was false. A Washington-based lawyer followed up, raising the possibility of a lawsuit over a commercial he labeled "false, completely unsubstantiated and defamatory."

Despite the bluster, the Democrats prevailed, winners - this time - in a modest skirmish that characterizes a wider war.

With millions of dollars spent on campaign commercials, the political parties not only subject their own ads to legal scrutiny, they also monitor the opposition's work carefully. And forcefully challenge what they deem unlawful, untrue or unfair.

"We or the campaigns will as a matter of practice put the opposition's ads through a fact check and at the very least circulate clarifications and rebuttals to the press," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Occasionally, he said, "We'll contact stations and ask they be pulled from the air."

Republicans operate similarly. The party's senatorial committee successfully challenged a television commercial that Democrats aired in the race between South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and GOP Rep. John Thune.

In that case, the dispute was over a visual image rather than the spoken word.

Party committees generally run "issue ads," a category of commercial that by law may not expressly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate. Despite that, the Democratic commercial included an image of a "Johnson for Senate" sign.

The ad quickly was remade to remove the offending image, then retransmitted to South Dakota television stations.

Ginny Wolfe, spokeswoman at the GOP senatorial committee, said party officials generally find out quickly about commercials that are airing, either from the companies they hire to place their own party-sponsored ads or from local campaigns.

"Oftentimes people really take liberty and stretch" the truth, she said. If they lack appropriate backup for claims, she said officials try to decide "whether this is so much of a stretch that we can convince the station to take it down."

Other officials said some of the maneuvering is psychological, an attempt to pressure stations to bend to the threat of legal action. Still another motivation is the desire to shape public opinion, attempting to attack the messenger and thereby deflect the message.

Both parties succeeded in having advertising pulled during the last election cycle.

Little more than a year ago, House Republicans persuaded two stations in Mississippi to stop airing a radio advertisement that accused Rep. Chip Pickering and other GOP lawmakers of failing to protect consumers from higher gasoline prices.

Democrats pointed out that most stations kept the ads on the air, and that the two that did not are owned by a Texas-based company whose top officials are Republican Party donors.

The Minnesota case had yet another twist.

At one point, Republicans claimed a station had promised not to run the ad until it was changed, and they issued a press release saying Democrats had "agreed to change copy in a false ad aimed at scaring seniors and distorting Republican John Kline's position on Social Security."

Democrats said no station was wavering and rushed out a rebuttal. "This is not the first time that the NRCC has reacted hysterically when Democrats point out that GOP candidates support Social Security privatization," it said.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota aired its commercial beginning July 29 on a dozen radio stations in the area where Kline is challenging Democratic Rep. Bill Luther's bid for re-election.

"Believe it or not, there's a candidate running for Congress who wants to end Social Security as we know it," the commercial states. "That's right - John Kline actually wants to take our Social Security and gamble it in the stock market. ... John Kline's risky scheme could mean increased taxes, cuts in our military or reduced benefits for seniors."

Kline's letter cautioned station officials they were airing a commercial that "is defamatory and unfairly takes issue with my position on Social Security."

He added that he opposes "any plan that privatizes Social Security. I oppose any changes to benefits for current recipients or near retirees."

Next came a letter from Kirk Jowers, a Washington lawyer whose clients include the GOP House campaign committee, which referred Kline to him.

Jowers wrote that at least one station in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area had suspended airing the ad.

"Please understand that I do not wish to put you in the middle of what is essentially a smear campaign masked as a political ad," Jowers wrote one station. "Nevertheless, given the unmitigated harm to Mr. Kline's reputation that will occur if the ad continues to air, I am recommending that he file suit against any station that continues to air the ad after receiving this letter."

At the same time, Alan Weinblatt, the general counsel of the Minnesota DFL, wrote stations that the ad "is factual and true in all respects. The fact that Mr. Kline does not like it does not change that fact."

In the end, the ad ran unchanged, on all dozen stations.


unknown, FOXNews.com. August 12, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Standard & Poor's. All rights reserved.