AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Its no secret that the airwaves in GOP primary states have been full of negative ads, charges and countercharges. The campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked stations to pull one ad it called totally false. The ad was sponsored by the superPAC backing Mitt Romney. TV stations have lots of options when it comes to running superPAC ads. But do they owe it to their viewers to make sure the ads are truthful?
NPR's Brian Naylor has that story.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The letter from Newt Gingrich's lawyer was blunt and to the point. The attack ad sponsored by Restore Our Future, the superPAC backing Mitt Romney, was quote, "patently false, misleading and defamatory." It called on Georgia TV stations to refrain from airing it, at risk of, quote, "potential civil liability."
Here's a bit of the ad Gingrich found objectionable.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He cosponsored a bill with Nancy Pelosi that would have given 60 million a year to a U.N. program supporting China's brutal one-child policy.
NAYLOR: That accusation has been rated as pants on fire false by the PolitiFact political fact-checking site.
It's not clear how effective the Gingrich letter was. The general manager of one Atlanta station said he never received it, and that the Restore Our Future group was now running a different ad on his station.
Scott McBride, president and general manager of WJCL and WTGS in Savannah, said his stations decided to keep the ad on the air.
SCOTT MCBRIDE: I sent it to my lawyers. They look it over, make sure that the stuff in here is pretty much truthful in content, and then we just go ahead and air it, as everybody does.
NAYLOR: There are different laws regarding different political ads according to Trevor Potter, who served as John McCain's campaign lawyer in 2008. Potter says an ad directly from a candidate must be accepted and aired by broadcast stations without editing. But he says...
TREVOR POTTER: That is not true for these outside groups, superPACs or other organizations. There is no obligation for the stations to take that advertising. It is completely up to the stations whether they take it, how much they take.
NAYLOR: It's fairly common for candidates to complain about ads and seek to have them pulled by threatening legal action, but it's pretty much an empty threat. The campaign ends, the candidate loses or moves on, with little appetite for an extended and expensive legal battle. Nevertheless, Potter says we can expect more such challenges in the coming months.
POTTER: I think you're going to see more of these disputes because you've got more negative advertising. You have, thus, more for candidates to complain about. And these negative ads are very effective. So a smart candidate, when they see one of these from an outside group, the first thing they think of is how can I get that off the air?
NAYLOR: These disputes also put TV stations in an awkward spot, says Scott McBride.
MCBRIDE: It is a very uncomfortable position that they put us in because, you know, what you do for one you do for all, and you want to make sure that everybody is heard in these things. So it is a very uncomfortable position, and it's very, you know, time-consuming. And it costs us money to run these things by our lawyers, obviously, so it's not something that we, you know, take lightly.
NAYLOR: Things could get more complicated for broadcasters under an effort by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. It has a website called flackcheck.org urging viewers to contact stations when they see an inaccurate ad.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the center's director, says those ads take a toll on how we view candidates.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you have a series of candidates in front of you and you decide not to vote for one of them, whom otherwise you would support, because you've been misled by third-party advertising and you believe that something is true about that candidate that is in fact false, you may cast a vote that you wouldn't have cast otherwise.
NAYLOR: She says that unchecked, the ads lead to cynicism about politics and discourage voting. But absent a change in the law, getting the superPACs to change their ways is going to be an uphill climb.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.