Monday, May 17, 2010

Rural TV station pulls attack ad enabled by Supreme Court ruling, but it stays on cable

When the Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations had the same free-speech rights in politics as individuals, we said that would increase the responsibility of broadcast stations to reject false, unproven or misleading advertising. The commercial television station in rural Eastern Kentucky pulled such an ad this week, helping prompt news stories about it, but the spot continued to run on cable systems in the county where the race is on tomorrow's primary-election ballot.

"WYMT-TV in Hazard pulled the ad because of questions about its accuracy," reported Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The ad, placed by a group with the nebulous name Citizens for Eastern Kentucky Government, attacks Chris Harris, a member of the Pike County Fiscal Court, the county's governing body. Harris has criticized Utility Management Group, which operates the Mountain Water District, and the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the "citizens" group has received $15,000 from the company and $2,500 from its lawyer, Hjalmarson found.

Hjalmarson was able to get that information because the advertiser filed a report with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. The registry's lawyer said the group was the first to register with the agency since the Supreme Court ruling. Laws on such groups differ widely from state to state. This episode shows that not only do broadcasters have the right (and we would argue the responsibility) to pull false, unproven or misleadign ads, news media have a responsibility to report on such advertising.

Utility Management Group "has ties to political king-maker Leonard Lawson, fresh off his acquittal on federal bid-rigging charges," Louisville Courier-Journal Political Writer Joseph Gerth notes in his column today, warning that the episode "could forever change the way politics are played in this state and the country." Kentucky's constitution and statutes banned direct contributions to candidates, but the 5-4 Supreme Court decision erased those laws. Gerth writes, "You've got to wonder if this is just the first of many elections in Kentucky in which corporations will become involved." (Read more)

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