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No, TV stations do not fact check political ads for accuracy before running them

Federal regulations prohibit broadcasters from refusing to run an ad from from a qualified candidate for any reason.

DALLAS — Watch the full Verify story tonight on WFAA at 10 p.m.

As viewers find the TV airwaves packed with political ads for the March 1 Texas primary election, a few Verify viewers have been asking me, “Do TV stations fact check political ads for accuracy before running them?”

For answers, I’m turning to the rules of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates TV stations and Dr. Philip Napoli, director of the DeWitt Wallace Research Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

"Can broadcasters review a political ad for its content before putting it on the air?” I asked him.

"No, broadcasters cannot do that,” Napoli said.

But why can't a TV station make sure an ad is truthful before deciding to run to it? Because, it’s the law.

The FCC says broadcasters have "...no power of censorship…" over ads that come from a "…legally qualified candidate for any public office…"

The law does not prevent TV stations from producing stories that fact check whether an ad is truthful but no station can decline to run an ad, for any reason.

But why would that be against the law?

"It takes us back to and especially younger folks have a hard time remembering this to a time when broadcasting was considered the most influential and powerful medium,” Napoli said.

He says, because TV stations were so dominant, Congress wanted to ensure "equal opportunities" for all candidates to use the public airwaves.

That concept, he says, relied heavily on the idea of "counterspeech." 

Essentially, that the best remedy against a lie is when other people tell the truth. The problem is counterspeech today gets heavily diluted by a firehose of information, misinformation and disinformation on social media.

“Are you saying the idea that counter speech is a remedy no longer really exists?” I asked Napoli.

"I think if it ever did, it's a much less effective solution to the problems around falsity today than it used to be,” he answered.

So, do TV stations fact check political ads for accuracy before running them?  

The answer is no, it is against the law to decline to broadcast any candidates ad, for any reason; a law written in era very different from the one we live in today.

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