The Truth In Political Advertising Project is
a demonstration project of the Democracy & Media Education Foundation. Its theme
is to play a major role in contributing to the restoration of integrity
to the political process. It is scheduled to begin formally
on September 16 th, and will include a special taping of “The
Aaron Harber Show TM” for broadcast statewide on KBDI Channel
12 – Colorado Public Television. The Project will be completed
in all aspects by December 31, 2004 .
Its purpose is develop a structure which
can be implemented locally and used nationally to inform the voting
public about the accuracy of political advertising – with
an emphasis on television advertising because it is the dominant
form of communication in federal elections in the United States. The
thesis is that, if there are entities verifying the accuracy and
fairness of claims made in political advertising, political advertisements
will become more accurate and honest – which often is not the
The Project’s efforts are directed
at changing the very nature of the political process on the assumption
that making the structural changes described herein will alter
the conduct of campaigns. The
Project seeks to bring a new level of accountability to
the political process by holding responsible those involved with
the way campaigns are conducted. The assumption is that, when fully
informed about them (which is a key failing at times) U.S. citizens
loathe the specific tactics deployed by and low standards held by
candidates and their campaigns. The candidates and their professionals
continue these practices because they find them effective.
Simply the existence of the TIPA Project should have a positive,
mitigating effect. This can and will be seen and measured
immediately. The Project’s orientation is to create an environment
based on full-disclosure of the facts so candidates and their professional
staffs begin to reevaluate their approach to campaigns. If candidates
and their professionals conclude scorched-earth tactics and personal
attacks no longer are viable, the tone and content of campaigns may
change – with a redirection towards issues and facts.
The Project, by focusing on both the accuracy and fairness
of political advertising (including television, radio, print advertising,
and direct mail), should help restore integrity to the political
process. While the effort is not meant to be preemptive
in nature, the Project anticipates the very existence of the Project
and the immediate and widespread recognition it will receive will
inhibit some of the “dirty campaigning” which has become
so prevalent today.
To make its work easy to understand and
to make it visually attractive for news organizations, the Project
will deploy two rating systems -- one for factual accuracy and
one for fairness. The ratings will be depicted in a graphically-attractive
manner, such as an “Accuracy Meter” and a “Fairness
Meter.” These will be used as the primary image conveyed to
media organizations and in the Project’s own promotion and
advertising. The rating systems
will be used on an individual advertisement-by-advertisement basis
as well as for an averaging approach which then can be used to characterize
The effort will be totally nonpartisan in nature. It
will differ from previous efforts on the part of media organizations
because there will be a separate and significant educational
component related to informing the public about the accuracy
and fairness. Past efforts have been focused on the evaluation of advertising
but generally have failed to go beyond mild attempts to inform the
readers or viewers of the sponsoring media organization. This has been
due to media organizations being reluctant to truly take on campaigns
and their supporters despite the division which exists in most organizations
between editorial and advertising departments. The truth is most media
organizations have a conflict of interest and are actively seeking
a share of the billions of dollars spent on campaigns in each election
cycle. Having an independent, nonpartisan source of information allows
new organizations far more leeway as opposed to when they are creating
the news themselves using their own staff. As a result, the Project
intentionally has been designed to maximize the media coverage and
exposure its work receives. Unlike other efforts, the Project also
expects to have the resources to commercially publicize its results,
when necessary. This will allow the Project to guarantee the timely
dissemination of its findings. Several prominent members of
both major parties already have agreed to participate in the TIPA Project.
The Project immediately will communicate its efforts to all 200 Public
Television stations and networks across the country as well as the
even greater number of Public Radio Stations in the United States .
In this manner, not only will a model be created for future elections,
but public broadcasting stations will have the opportunity to initiate
efforts of their own in the current election cycle so as to influence
the way elections are conducted in their states and communities.
A proactive media effort will be conducted for every evaluation.
This effort will differentiate the Project from all others. That is,
previous efforts at evaluating political advertising typically have
been restricted to publication or broadcast of any evaluations only
by the single sponsoring media organization. The Project, instead,
will benefit from a broad dissemination of every critique it performs
by a wide range of media entities. This new effort will include some
combination of the following:
- Nonpartisan reviews by a panel of political, academic, media,
and community experts.
- Dissemination of reviews within 24 hours of any new advertisement
broadcast or publication.
- A willingness to severely criticize advertisements which are false
- Leadership of statewide discussions regarding the relevance of
every television and radio advertisement (i.e., not simply its accuracy).
- Instantaneous contact with over 650 media professionals in Colorado
- Instantaneous contact with over 120 media professionals
nationally (including major columnists – many of whom
will take a great interest in the Project).
- Development of a +/-10,000-person contact list for the most politically-active
individuals in Colorado (i.e., from Precinct Caucus and Active
Primary Voter Registration lists – the citizens most actively
and regularly involved in the political process and who care about
8. Guaranteed participation by the State’s leading source of
political television broadcasting – PBS Station KBDI Channel
12 -- with a broadcast reach to over 3 million people.
9. Potential participation by some of the State’s
commercial television stations.
10. Potential participation by some of the State’s
commercial radio stations.
11. Potential participation by some of the State’s
public television stations (in addition to KBDI).
12. Potential participation by some of the State’s
public radio stations.
13. Potential participation by some of the State’s
leading newspapers and weeklies.
14. A survey research component to measure the
effect of political advertising and the impact of the Project on
the public’s perception
of the accuracy and honesty of advertising.
The advantage the Project has is that, due to its nonpartisan nature,
it can be definitive in its positions. Too
many past efforts have been so equivocal they rendered themselves worthless.
The Project needs to have teeth. It is time to be bold and to avoid
the milquetoast efforts of the past.
As briefly mentioned previously, a critical advantage the Project
has is it avoids the inherent conflict of interest commercial
media organizations have when they consider criticizing political advertisements. This
conflict is due to the fact these same organizations receive thousands
and sometimes millions of dollars from political campaigns. In most
cases, the media outlets want to maximize these revenues and are hesitant
to criticize their well-paying, cash clients. These are “easy
dollars” and media organizations lap them up (despite their public
protestations to the contrary). Because the criticisms now will come
from a nonpartisan source, many media outlets will feel more comfortable
reporting the critiques as third-party- generated news. Because they
-- the media outlets -- no longer will be the origin of the news story
(as they are now, when they attempt to evaluate political campaign
advertising -- which is one reason they have historically done it so
poorly), the Press and other media outlets will be able to report more
accurately and more comprehensively than they have in the past.
Additionally, because political television advertising has evolved
to the point where there often are immediate responses by one campaign
to advertisements launched by another campaign -- e.g., a response
ad often is produced and broadcast in 24 hours or less -- a
Rapid Response Team will be formed as part of the Project.
This will allow the Project to be involved at all times. It also should
serve to inhibit dirty campaigning. If funds are sufficient, there
will be a component to scientifically measure the impact of the Project
on voters. The current budget
is only a draft and is subject to substantial modification.
By using the Internet to post reviews and to track the overall
advertising integrity of each campaign, voters will have a continuously-available
source of information. This has never been done before in
this manner and will be a major innovation. Audio and possibly even
video reviews of advertisements will be included on the Web site.
Project staff members already are knowledgeable about these processes
and can instantaneously accomplish these important communication
Another difference between the Project and prior
efforts to address these critical issues is the involvement of multiple
media organizations in the Project as well as academics. And the
inclusion of members from both major parties will separate this effort
from any other (i.e., in contrast to the often partisan or biased “Truth Squad” approach
used as an extension of one campaign against another).
Promotion and publicity are keys to the TIPA’s
and successfully implementing the endeavor will have little meaning
if the electorate does not know about its findings. Therefore,
the largest single budget element of the fully-funded Project will
be an ongoing promotional and marketing campaign. This campaign will
inform citizens about the TIPA and its findings on a continuous,
in-depth basis. It will direct citizens to the Project’s Web
site and its programming. The Web site will be updated on
a daily basis during the election season.
Because the Project will be competing with millions
of dollars of political advertising and the “noise” such
advertising creates, its efforts will have to be very creative and
strategic. For these reasons, advertising agencies and other experienced
and creative entities as well as advertising and marketing departments
at institutions of higher learning will be listed to assist the Project
on a volunteer basis, whenever possible. Project staff already has
seen great interest in such participation.
The base budget for the Project will fund the demonstration project
for the U.S. Senate race in Colorado and other campaigns within the
State for both the General Election. Because the U.S. Senate
contest could decide which party controls the United State Senate and
the legislative agenda for the entire Congress for the next two years
as well as which nominees get appointed for the U.S. Supreme Court
and hundreds of federal judgeships, it already has and will continue
to receive extraordinary national attention. This is a plus
for the Project as it will be seen instantly on a national basis.
The U.S. Senate race currently includes one candidate
from each of the two major parties. Due to its national implications,
the contest is anticipated to be the costliest in the history of
the State of Colorado – possibly
reaching $20 million (a record for any U.S. Senate race in Colorado
). As a result, the nonpartisan TIPA Project in Colorado offers an
opportunity to help all participants focus on the important issues
of the day – as determined by each campaign. Please contact Aaron
Harber at (303) 666-6161 or Harber@DMEFD.org or Matthew Silverman at
(303) 915-4518 or Silverman@DMEFD.org for further information. The
Democracy and Media Education Foundation Web site is www.DMEFD.org. Thank
you for your interest and support.
Some of the most insidious political
advertising, however, comes from demographically-targeted Direct Mail
and these will be reviewed, as well. Furthermore, many of these attacks
are anonymous, making it difficult to hold any person or group responsible.
Accountability, therefore, has become even more important.
The Project also will take on
the relative new phenomenon of Section 527 organizations which have
been getting progressively more involved in political advertising.
The fact that 527's have little accountability and are an avenue for
almost unlimited expenditures -- and, hence abuse -- is a significant
issue which needs to be addressed immediately. The 527's represent
a potentially fatal flaw in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform
legislation – a majority of which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme
Court. By examining ways to use public exposure to address this issue,
the Project could provide a significant national public benefit in
both the short term (i.e., for the 2004 campaign) and the long term
(i.e., future elections).
The use of graphically-attractive
methods of displaying information is a reality accepted by the Project
as that approach will maximize the use of the information by newspapers
and television stations -- all of which prefer to present information
in easily-viewed and readily-digestible form. This approach also will
be consistent with the needs of the Project’s Web site, which
will maximize its own impact by being graphically attractive, with
data displayed in a manner which is easy to understand.
The public broadcasting system
for both television and radio stations often is seen as a national
network because the highest-profile programming typically is produced
for national broadcast. Hence, “NOW With Bill Moyers,” “Nova,” “Frontline,” or “Morning
Edition” are seen or heard nationally and are viewed in that
context. While nationally-broadcast and syndicated programs are most
prominent on Public Television Stations and Public Radio Stations,
each station serves its own community and has the capacity to produce
and broadcast programming for its broadcast area. What this means is
that these hundreds of stations can create and broadcast programming
-- as well as work with local publications -- which is specific to
elections being held in various congressional districts as well as
states (i.e., for U.S. Senate races). Hence, although the Public Broadcasting
System is seem as a national network-- which it is -- it offers the
unique opportunity to produce and broadcast local programming relevant
to specific positions being contested in each station’s viewing
area. This flexibility is in stark contrast to national networks such
as ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Discovery, et cetera, all of which have little
or no flexibility when it comes to such localized programming (i.e.,
the large national networks and the cable networks do not do local
programming and the local affiliates do very little original programming
outside of their news departments -- which totally avoid long-form
A formal arrangement has been
made with PBS Station KBDI Channel 12 to provide the broadcast time
needed for the Truth In Political Advertising Project. The Station’s
involvement is critically important because it is recognized as the
State’s premier origin of Colorado public affairs programming.
The Station now has the capacity to reach over 3 million people. It
also now is available via DirecTV and Dish Network satellite broadcast
systems. The Station’s signal reaches many Colorado communities,
and responses to political programming produced by the Project’s
staff have been received from a diverse number of municipalities including
but not limited to Aurora, Arvada, Boulder, Brighton, Broomfield, Castle
Rock, Centennial, Colorado Springs, Denver, Englewood, Erie, Fort Collins,
Golden, Greeley, Greenwood Village, Lafayette, Lakewood, Littleton,
Longmont, Louisville, Loveland, Northglenn, Parker, Pueblo, Superior,
Thornton, Westminster, and Wheat Ridge. Currently, the Station broadcasts “The
Aaron Harber Show,” during Prime Time at 9:30 pm on Fridays
and at 2:00 pm on Sundays. The Project already has made arrangements
with USA Talk Network, Inc. -- the producer of “The Aaron
Harber Show” -- to use the weekly time-slot for the Project
whenever necessary so as to guarantee it significant statewide exposure.
Given the extraordinary difficulty of securing television time-slots
for any public affairs programming (especially during Prime Time),
this is a significant achievement for the Project. The Project’s
most critical programming also will be made available on the Worldwide
Web for viewing via the Internet on a 24/7 basis from any location
on the planet thanks to an arrangement with Micro Source of Greenwood
Village, Colorado, which is hosting the TIPA Web site.
The Project will enlist the
participation of political party representatives at the highest levels.
Project staff members already have excellent relationships with the
leadership of both major political parties as well as some of Colorado ’s
minor parties. The Project will seek a broad base of representation.
This is best accomplished by having a large panel from which a critical
mass or threshold of participants always will be available. Hence,
a “pool” approach would be used to ensure that all advertisements
are reviewed by a large and varied number of people. Hence, the structure
of the panel will be designed to ensure fair and accurate reviews which
always are seen as such and which will be impervious to valid criticism.
The configuration could be as follows: (a) 4 electronic media representatives,
(b) 4 print media representatives, (c) 4 advertising agency representatives,
(d) 8 academics, (e) 4 political party leaders, (e) 6 campaign activists
or representatives, (f) 2 political consultants, (g) 4 former elected
officials, and (h) 4 others, including community leaders, or a similar
mix. This would create a pool of 40 participants which should allow
the Project to guarantee that any advertisement will be reviewed by
at least 10 diverse members of the panel at any time (and the establishment
of a minimum number of panelists and a minimum degree of diversity
will be required for a review to be released).
This is a significant challenge
which should not be overlooked. Though often the last element to be
funded, performing “before,” “during,” and “after” survey
research could be invaluable in assessing the true impact of the Project.
Panel polling could be used to assess the impact the Project has over
the course of the campaign season (i.e., by going back to the same
respondents repeatedly) along with traditional random polling of different
respondents so as to build a database of information on the Project’s
visibility, credibility ratings, and impacts. Staff already committed
to the Project have extensive survey research experience (including
doing statewide political polling going back 30 years ago) and have
formal data analysis training and expertise so this component could
easily be included in the Project, with funding primarily needed for
the data collection efforts. Project funds will be allocated across
categories as well as into new categories, based on (a) the level of
funding, (b) when funding occurs, and (c) the Project’s needs – which
are expected to change rapidly over time.