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Group Charges AT&T Ad Promoting Merger Is Deceptive

Appeals to TV station's public interest obligation
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Opening up a new front in the fight to stop AT&T's $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile, public interest law firm Media Access Project is going after AT&T's TV ad promoting the merger.

In a letter to WUSA, Gannett's CBS affiliate, one of the Washington, D.C., stations airing the ad, MAP charges the ad is deceptive and misleading, and therefore, the station has a public interest obligation to make sure the ad is accurate or pull it from the airwaves.

"Gannett always has made sincere efforts to fulfill its legal obligation to operate in the public interest, and indeed, takes great pride in the integrity and quality of its program service," wrote Andrew Schwartzman, the svp and policy director for MAP, which has opposed the merger since it was announced early this year.

Opponents are up against a goliath in AT&T, which is spending millions to persuade legislators and regulators inside the Beltway that its merger should be allowed to proceed. Its TV ad claiming that its proposed merger with T-Mobile will create 96,000 jobs and invest $8 billion pushes all the right buttons in a strained economy. It's also hard to miss, airing frequently across all the major network affiliates and on cable news.

Since MAP can't appeal to the Federal Trade Commission (AT&T isn't selling a product), it referred to the Federal Communications Commission's public interest programming rule from 1960 that states: "With respect to advertising material, the licensee has the additional responsibility to take all reasonable measures to eliminate any false, misleading, or deceptive matter...."

In his letter to WUSA general manager Allan Horlick, Schwartzman argues that AT&T's jobs and investment claims are unsupported by the Economic Policy Institute study on which the claim relies, and that the math behind the $8 billion investment claim doesn't add up. At the very least, Schwartzman said he wants WUSA to ask AT&T "to explain."

Sending a letter to a TV station may not accomplish much, said Scott Flick, a partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "It's a long shot at best. I would be surprised if stations would stop airing it for the issues raised. This issue doesn't seem very clean cut, and it would be a very awkward position for a station to take."

Even Schwartzman said the letter is less about legalities and more about pressuring AT&T to provide more proof and information to support its claims, which both the merger's opponents and FCC have requested.

"We're not complaining that the station has done anything wrong. We're just bringing information to them," Schwartzman said.

Update: 

AT&T responded to the letter by playing the First Amendment card. "How odd for a group called the Media Access Project to be working to limit media access. Or free speech," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in an emailed statement.

Update:

In a letter responding to MAP, WUSA's Horlick said he won't pull AT&T's ad, though he'd be happy to consider accepting any ads that oppose the merger. "WUSA is in no position to be the arbiter of the legitimacy of the opinions on either side in this debate, or to deny access to those who wish to present their opinions," Horlick wrote.