Back-scratching with ad dollars tough to limit
A timid attempt was made last year to keep elected officials from spending your money to tell you what a great job they’re doing. It didn’t get far. A small band of lawmakers is trying again. The situation looks better.
Senate Bill 2482 passed its home chamber last week. The nine co-sponsors seek to cure the problem of too many incumbent officeholders — city, county and state — of boosting their image at your expense.
Be clear, the bill has nothing to do advertising paid for by campaigns. The bill targets those “public service” ads that take the form of welcoming tourists or explaining how to apply for programs. The not-so-hidden purpose of such ads is to get an incumbent’s name, face or voice (or all three) before the public. It’s, uh, campaigning without campaigning, you know?
As the infamous and yet famous former Gov. Theodore Bilbo is often said to have said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Name recognition generates votes.
We live in a brave new world of communication. Details matter.
Take truly fake news as one example. The creators of some websites with extreme right or extreme left content, for example, have no political agenda. They provoke purely for profit. Internet revenue is based on clicks and views. To be outrageous is to be extremely popular, and to be extremely popular is to be extremely lucrative.
Facebook is a different type of platform, but its recent experiment proves the point. In the name of corporate responsibility, the platform put some limits on relaying “viral” videos. CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted time-on-site would drop. And it did. Total time on Facebook is down 5 percent since videos of street fights and such have been throttled.
As a different example, take affirmation stations. The broadcast day of the SuperTalk Mississippi radio network includes talk show hosts who self-identify as conservatives. The network is a healthy conversation pit for Republican state officials who essentially have an open microphone to speak to a statewide audience — unchallenged on anything they say, most any time they desire. Liberal voices can be heard on the network, but almost always to serve as foils and ramp up outrage. (See above.)
There’s no quid pro quo, certainly no written or even spoken agreement between the radio network and state oficials, but the symbiosis is there. For 2014, the most current year on the state’s spending transparency website, TeleSouth Communications, the parent, was paid $450,000. State leaders seem to appreciate SuperTalk, and your dollars follow.
The situation is very different when officials are spending their own money or money from their private campaign funds. For example, Gov. Phil Bryant chastises Mississippi Today, an online news service, as liberal. Bryant’s thoughts are carried forward by another online news service, Y’all Politics. Also on the Y’all website is advertising by three state Republican officials — Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney — even though Bryant is term-limited and it’s not an election year.
It’s perfectly legal and perfectly appropriate for public officials to direct their own money to media outlets serving as their amen corners. It would be absurd to think they should be required to spend money with media they consider to be enemies. From the other side, it’s a perfectly good business model to cater to advertisers unless, of course, any claim of journalistic neutrality is made. And that’s an ethical question, not a legal one.
The crucial distinction is whose money is being spent.
The nine senators who signed on to SB 2482 believe that for a year before seeking re-election, an official should not appear in any form of advertising paid for by taxpayers. The proposed legislation would require candidates to file an affidavit of compliance under penalty of removal from office for lying. Specific, and certainly not a sweeping reform.
State and local governments spend tons of money advertising, often as required by law. Through the years there has been a lot of eyebrow-raising and attempts to curb favoritism in spending discretionary ad dollars. Many states have abundant laws on the subject, including independent screening to confirm that ads were placed for maximum impact as opposed to courting favor. Some require a tag to tell the audience if public funds are being spent. Those processes have been imperfect, too.
It’s difficult to legislate. Even with lots of regulations, it comes down to voters detecting for themselves when public money spent on advertising is in the public’s interest, and when it’s in the interest of incumbents seeking favorable attention.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.