Here in Connecticut, MoveOn.org has financed, produced and distributed several ads that may be described as “helpful” to Democrats challenging entrenched Republicans. The so called “Caught Red-Handed” ads launched against U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson and others have been frequently aired, but it is questionable whether the ads will be helpful to Johnson’s Democrat opponent, State Senator Chris Murphy.
Traditionally, negative advertising in the state has not had a good press. Major newspapers in particular have argued that they hurt more than they help; for one thing, “fact based” attack ads arouse antipathy in the media. At least, that has been the case so far.
Unlike some earlier negative ads frowned upon by many newspaper publishers, editors and commentators, the “Caught Red-Handed” ads have no connection with the Democrat Party as such. While MoveOn.org is ideologically affiliated with the progressive wing of the Democrat Party, formally the group’s connection with the Democrat Party is no more legally entangling than, say, Rep. Nancy Johnson’s connection with felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Johnson’s Democrat opponent has distanced himself from the ads and given hints that the ads are somewhat below the salt, politically speaking, and indeed they are. Several reputable television stations elsewhere in the country have refused to air them.
Having spent about $1.3 million on the Republican’s “Caught Red Handed” ads,” MoveOn.org must have been a little disappointed that some conscientious decision makers, after consultations with lawyers, have refused to show the ads.
WVIT, Channel 30 in Connecticut, refused to show a “Caught Red-Handed” ad that tied Johnson to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff because the ties between the two are tenuous to non-existent. The Courant reported that the General Manager of Channel 30, David Doebler, killed the ad after consulting with the station’s lawyers.
He is not alone.
A “Caught Red-Handed” ad airing in Ohio that depicted Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce and others as selling out seniors to major drug companies was rejected by the only local station running the spot because, said WBNS General Manager Tom Griesdorn, “In the end I deemed it was defamatory because the allegations (made by MoveOn.org) could no longer be defended to the satisfaction of our attorneys."
FactCheck.org, a reputable non-partisan organization known for calling public attention to fraudulent political ads, last February declared that, “MoveOn.org launched a false TV ad in the districts of several House members, claiming through images and words that President Bush plans to cut Social Security benefits nearly in half.”
It’s become far too easy for politicians to “distance” themselves from ads that clearly benefit them, while refusing to denounce the sometimes “factual” but untruthful message projected by the ads.
The McCain/Feingold campaign finance reforms banned unlimited unregulated contributions known as “soft money,” regulated and limited “issue ads” from unions and corporations, and prohibited foreign nationals from contributing soft money to national state or local elections.
The reforms, well intentioned, were largely responsible for the creation of politicized 527’s that are immune from laws and regulations governing parties. These in name only “non-partisan” entities- MoveOn.org is one – now may collect and spend money to produce attack ads. Since these groups are not formally attached to parties, the media, which previously had exercised a restraining hand on irresponsible political ads, is not inclined to accuse those who produce and distribute the ads of rank partisanship – even when they are clearly partisan.
Because the groups operate outside the precincts of the parties, not only are they free from laws and regulations that apply to political parties; apparently, they are free from the laws of polite social behavior as well.
A more accurate way of putting it is this: Political 527’s, and blogs as well, are so new that social sanctions and prohibitions have not grown up around them. There are things that even the most audacious commentator might not say in a newspaper column. But bloggers – at least for the time being – are free of restraints that hem in political commentators, whose work is usually overseen by editorial cops.
Since 527’s are creatures of the tax code, rather than the laws and social behaviors that govern parties, the restraints that limit parties do not exist for 527’s. A political party might blush at having sanctioned – if only by its silence – an ad rejected by so many conscientious journalists. But MoveOn.org has no problem with the ads because a) they perform a useful and necessary political purpose; b) they are perfectly legal; and c) the moralists at MoveOn.org who might in pre-campaign finance reform days have choked on such ads have discovered the virtues of tolerance and forbearance, which is usually the case when someone else’s ox is being gored.