Policing Truth In Advertising

Television stations must do a better job of telling viewers whether political candidates’ ad statements are truthful, says the head of a national election survey.

Adam Clymer, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey and a former The New York Times writer, bases his conclusion on new evidence that voters often believe the claims made in attack ads, even if they are false or misleading.

In a survey Clymer’s group released last week, 61 percent of voters in battleground states said they believe President Bush “favors sending American jobs overseas,” 56 percent think John Kerry “voted for higher taxes 350 times,” and 72 percent believe 3 million jobs have been lost during Bush’s presidency. All three statements, which were made in recent ads from Bush and Kerry, are untrue or misleading, Clymer’s group determined.

Clymer’s group interviewed 1,026 voters in 18 battleground states between April 15 and May 2.

“[This survey] is this year’s replication of the sad political truth that political advertisers get away with misleading the public,” Clymer said. “People say they don’t like it, but it still works.”

What is different about this year’s election is that attack ads were launched very early on, Clymer said. “It’s not hard for reporters to find out if the ads are truthful,” he said.

The onus is on TV journalists in particular, since they have the same audience as the spots. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said many stations do their part. “There are a number of stations around the country that make ad watches a regular part of the coverage,” she said. “Ad watches are among the things viewers like the most.”

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, TV stations are not allowed to alter the content of political ads unless it violates a station’s policy. Cochran said stations rarely exercise this option.