“I wouldn’t think a nonprofit newspaper could print something like this.”
It is a brand-new day when an advertisement appearing in the Key Peninsula News draws so much attention on social media that it’s picked up by another newspaper as a news story, but there you have it. We are in new territory.
Last month KP News printed a half-page advertisement on page 30 that inspired many complaints and comments, including the quote above. (See Letters to the Editor in this edition.)
The advertisement was a paid political spot purchased by three candidates running for Position No. 2 on the Peninsula School Board, and fully disclosed in the ad as required by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.
The ad casually mixed some claims about the evils of Critical Race Theory, which PSD does not teach, with opinions about the dangers of sex education, which PSD teaches using state-mandated curriculum.
How could we print something like that?
According to the PDC:
Statements about candidates in political advertisements must be truthful.
It is illegal to sponsor a political ad, with actual malice, that contains a statement constituting libel or defamation, or that makes a false statement about a candidate unless a candidate is making a false statement about him or herself.
Political advertising does not include letters to the editor, news or feature articles, editorial comment or replies to editorials in a regularly published periodical.
In other words, truth in advertising laws do not generally apply to political ads, depending on the format, because they are protected speech under the First Amendment.
Under the equal-time rule, broadcast networks are obligated to offer ad time to all candidates and cannot deny or change them no matter how offensive or dishonest. Cable outlets don’t have the same restrictions and social media have none, creating our current pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and straight-up propaganda.
The KP News neither endorses nor opposes political candidates or issues brought to the voters by the Pierce County Auditor. We also do not censor or alter the language of the political ads we print, short of anything defamatory or libelous, or those using hate speech, calling for violence, or that may otherwise cause physical harm.
And we’ve had to reject some of those in the recent past.
Our news articles, features and Peninsula Views are fact-checked as rigorously as possible. Errors occur but are less numerous than the occasional criticism we get about the content of some opinion columns. To be useful, those complaints are best expressed as a letter to the editor we will gladly publish as space permits.
There is a bipartisan bill that has been slowly making its way through Congress since 2019 called the Honest Ad Act that would require fact-checking in political advertising, among other things, particularly online.
Washington state has already covered this ground. In 1998 the state Supreme Court struck down a 1984 statute prohibiting political ads that “the person knows, or should reasonably be expected to know, to be false,” as a violation of the First Amendment. Judge Phil Talmadge, a former Democratic legislator, wrote in his dissent that the decision made ours “the first court in the history of the Republic to declare First Amendment protection for calculated lies.”
The Legislature repeatedly revised the statute so that by 2011 it included detailed definitions of defamation and libel, and protections for candidates against false ads “with actual malice.”
The public platform of newspapers, which cannot target ads the way social media does or cable news can, is a place where ordinary readers may read and judge the unfiltered words of politicians and campaigns promoting themselves knowing — as required by law — that their words, true or false, come straight from the horse’s mouth.
What could be more revealing?
Being honest, without bias or favor, upholding the journalistic standards and ethics demanded of the profession are the most essential elements to the continued success of this newspaper. As long as we continue upholding those values, we will continue to be the independent, reader-supported community newspaper readers like you trust, value and in your words — love.
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