A Modest Proposal (Political Ads)

The content of political ads in the U.S. is very, very loosely regulated. Unlike every other sort of advertisement, political candidates can (at least in most circumstances) make blatantly false or misleading statements with blanket immunity in the name of free speech. And, as anyone who’s watched a television come election time, this quickly turns things into a mudslinging race to the bottom.

Some have clamored for government regulation to curb false or misleading statements– but it’s not at all clear that we could trust (say) the FCC to be a good gatekeeper for political discourse, nor whether trying to outlaw false statements wouldn’t mire political campaigning in layers and layers of frivolous and non-frivolous lawsuits to be sorted out laboriously and expensively by the legal system. Simply put, the legal system doesn’t move fast enough to mediate political debate, nor do we want the side with the best lawyers to win.

So, besides government regulation, what can be done to help our political discourse suck less?

I’d like to suggest something that could be put into play by any candidate, at any time, with little expense and no legal reforms necessary. Essentially, if one found oneself in a dirty race where ones opponent was making blatantly false or misleading statements, instead of just slugging back, they could ask a respected, neutral third party to fact-check their advertisements before airing, and inform their viewers about it. I envision a statement like this at the end of a political ad:

“There’s a loophole where political candidates can legally say almost anything to get elected, true or false. We thought you deserved better, so we had the official Congressional Research Service review this ad and they found it non-misleading and factually correct. Can candidate X say the same?”

As with so many other things, the devil’s in the details- what famously neutral research organization would resonate well enough with voters (and agree to participate) so the other side couldn’t just bring in their own obscure partisan “factcheckers”? Could you use this against last-week-of-the-election smear campaigns? Where do you draw the boundary on ‘misleading’? How do you fit this into a small part of a thirty-second ad- and so forth. But I think such things could be worked out and that this strategy would likely improve political discourse- and since taking the moral high ground first is so powerful, it might even help win some elections.

One thought on “A Modest Proposal (Political Ads)

  1. 1. Organization: what organization or group would monitor this process, and how would this organization maintain (i) legitimacy; (ii) non-partisanship; and (iii) efficacy?
    (a) Annenberg School of Journalism (current group that does fact-checking)–pro: they already do this sort of factchecking and would be quite in favor of helping, I would guess; con: they have to be funded, and funding is a short step away from bias in many people’s minds;
    (b) Congressional Research Service–pro: they can make a stronger claim to non-partisanship than almost any group in the country right now; con: they do not and perhaps cannot do this under current funding schemes, personnel positions/appointments, etc.

    2. Availability: for how many elections would this be possible?
    (a) only one–Presidential–this would keep the process generally manageable, but seems overlimiting as there are other races that matter–from another perspective, even this might not be manageable if there are multiple ads airing in various states and regionally specific.
    (b) very few–Presidential and maybe Senate races–this would cut down on the required resources it would take to perform this service, but stands to again decrease (overlimit) the available use scenarios.
    (c) any or all on the federal level and gubernatorial elections (as these are all of the elections that most people think matter on a regular basis)–if the service gets used, it stands to be too large of a burden for any organization, and if it doesn’t get used, it doesn’t get used.

    3. Campaign efficacy and commitment–is it in a candidate’s interest enough to get them to sign on to it?
    (a) yes: (i) argumentative high ground goes to the candidate that uses the service–this requires that this activity be sanctioned by a particular, mutually agreed upon organization so that it doesn’t become a delegitimized, partisan poop-shoot; (ii) voters would prefer something be done to decrease the prevalence of smear commercials, so politicians would like to sign on; (iii) this would improve political discourse, and politicians may prefer this.
    (b) no (politicians think strategically, and will only do something like this if it will help them win, and political parties will only endorse this if they think it will help them win most of the time, or if voters demand it, which it is difficult to identify any recent example of a majority of voters wanting and getting anything that at least some politicians didn’t want to give them): (i) commitment is key–if politicians can use this for only some commercials and not others, then it confuses viewers/voters and delegitimizes the system; (ii) but if politicians must commit long term (sign a contract to use the service for all commercials in an election cycle), then they will not be able to respond quickly enough to circumstances and immediately or pre-emptively release commercials in their interests–in some cases, this expense will decrease their chance of signing on in the first place; (iii) the skepticism of fact-checking and misleading-ness may be enough for politicians to avoid this topic–in other words, there are many issues that can be deemed open to human interpretation and framing rather than fact in popular discourse; (iv) is it possible that enough politicians will see truthtelling rather than misleading as a better course of action than saying what you can say to win?

    just a few thoughts expanding on the last paragraph of the post.

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