Commentary
10:59 am
Tue April 12, 2011

Truth in Advertising

Were you aware that there’s a legal difference between print media and broadcast media in this country?

Print media, and the internet, are essentially completely free to print and say whatever they want to, although of course they can be sued if they commit libel or violate privacy laws. Broadcast media are different, however. The government, through the Federal Communications Commission, has the right to regulate them.

Stations can have their licenses revoked or not renewed if they violate FCC policy. Thirty years ago, stations could be in big trouble if they failed to provide news, or public service programming.

Those restrictions have now been largely relaxed. But stations can still risk their licenses if they broadcast hate speech, or programming that is either clearly racist or obscene.

The reason, by the way, that the government can regulate the broadcast media is that the airwaves are public property, like the national parks. And while you could theoretically have an infinite number of print publications or web sites, there’s only so much space on the spectrum for radio and TV transmissions.

Being granted a place on the dial is a privilege that carries certain responsibilities. However, the question is what those responsibilities should be.  Increasingly, I wonder whether stations should be allowed to broadcast advertising that is plainly false.

You might say that deception this is the very nature of most advertising, and to a point you’d be right. Nobody really believes that if you start drinking a certain brand of soda that beautiful young things will suddenly frolic on the beach with you.

We expect ads to stretch the truth. But every so often, they do more than that. As witness a last-ditch, highly expensive propaganda campaign being waged by Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River. He is desperate to prevent the building of a competing bridge, something Governor Snyder wants. Most commercial interests in both the United States and Canada also say the bridge is badly needed. But, Moroun fears his profits might be affected, and is currently waging a hugely expensive ad campaign to try and sway legislators.

Trouble is, much of his advertising is riddled with falsehoods from beginning to end. One TV commercial claims that those supporting the bridge know it will lose money and cost Michigan taxpayers $100 million every year.

That’s not shading the truth; that’s a demonstrable lie, as is the claim the same ad makes that bridge traffic has dropped by half over the last decade.

Both the Canadian government and Governor Snyder say the deal is structured in a way that Michigan tax payers can’t have any liability. But the ad, paid for by a front group called “Americans for Prosperity,” keeps running.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says he is stunned that the group would, quote, “be so brazen in making that statement when it was so blatantly false.” Well, sir, they are doing that because they’ve been able to get away with it.  

Matty Moroun has a perfect right to argue against a new bridge. But I think we should ask whether he or anyone else has the right to broadcast lies on the public airwaves, and, what, if anything, should be done about it.