Special-interest groups are the kibitzers of the political game, circling the table, looking at everyone’s cards, offering unwanted advice. These advocacy outfits — called 527 groups after the section of the Internal Revenue Service code that regulates them — enjoy tax-exempt status, no financial-disclosure requirements, and the anonymity of names such as “Citizens For a More American Future,” which could represent anyone from the NRA to the NBA.
SPOTTY AD Kerry Healey is being attacked in ads by a 537 group called Patriot Majority.
The most notorious third-party group in recent memory was the inaptly named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose drive-by ad campaign helped sink the presidential fantasies of Senator John F. Kerry (D-See You in Six Years).
This being an off-year election, advocacy groups are free to focus on state races, including Massachusetts. So, how about a big Bay State welcome for the Patriot Majority Fund, a coalition of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the Democratic Governor’s Association, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The Patriot Majority mélange has jumped into the gubernatorial rumpus with a TV commercial attacking GOP standard-bearer Kerry Healey. The group reportedly could spend up to $2 million by Election Day.
The 30-second Patriot Majority spot accuses Healey of abusing her position as lieutenant governor by “using state employees to staff her political events and state police escorts to avoid traffic.” Beyond that, “Healey opposed property tax relief for seniors. She said they were, quote, ‘overhoused’.”
Then the spot gets a little dicey. The narrator says, “Healey and [Governor Mitt] Romney even tried to cut millions from public education,” but on the screen is superimposed “cut millions from public education” — not “tried to cut millions.”
Why the hedge in the voiceover? Maybe because in the 2004 budget Romney actually proposed an increase in K-12 school spending (which the legislature cut) and a smaller cut in higher education than state lawmakers eventually approved.
On its Web site Patriot Majority has provided a boatload of “Documentation & Citations,” even to the point of footnoting the statement “Kerry Healey just doesn’t get it.” (See Mike Barnicle, Boston Herald: “Kerry Healey is simply clueless.”) But the documentation for the public-education cuts (“Romney Often Casts Himself as Budget Hero But Speeches Omit Some Important Detail,” Boston Globe, October 24, 2005) is used in a way that could be called — pick one — selective, misleading, or deceptive.
But certainly not earth-shattering. Even so, the question is, what standards of fairness and accuracy do local television stations employ before airing third-party ads?
“They have to have proper documentation citing a source and have the paperwork to follow it up so we can verify it,” said Ginny Lund, director of public relations at WHDH-TV, which is airing the Patriot Majority ad.
A CBS4 spokeswoman directed our attention to the station’s Web site, which describes the guidelines for candidate and advocacy ads: “If, in our sole discretion, the management of CBS4 feels that the content and presentation is outside the bounds of responsible content for this marketplace, the commercial(s) will be subject to rejection.”
Right, but what does “outside the bounds” mean? And, given that the Patriot Majority ad is currently running on CBS4, does that mean fudging the facts is inside the bounds? At press time, we were still waiting for an answer from CBS4.