Ben Jealous can demand TV stations pull ads he calls deceptive — but it seldom happens

In demanding that Baltimore TV stations stop running a Republican Governors Association ad he considers deceptive, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous is seeking an outcome he’s unlikely to get.

As of Friday evening, none of the four Baltimore broadcast stations running the ad attacking Gov. Larry Hogan’s challenger had agreed to pull the ad portraying Jealous as a socialist. One of them, WJZ, reported that it would keep running the spot.

Jealous issued the demand Thursday in a letter from his campaign’s lawyer. Spokespersons for the stations did not return calls or messages. Steve Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the Jealous campaign, said WJZ was the only station that responded to the letter — and only to seek more information.

While the ad appears to be selectively edited to cast Jealous in a negative light, a veteran observer of Maryland politics expressed skepticism that the TV stations would bow to the demand.

“I can’t remember in the 32 years I’ve been here a single campaign ad being pulled either in Baltimore or the D.C. stations,” said Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Norris said deceptive ads are common in politics.

“It’s unfortunate. It shouldn’t happen. People in either party shouldn’t stoop to that,” he said. “But it happens all the time.”

Mark Graber, a University of Maryland law school professor and a First Amendment specialist, was asked whether he would expect the stations to stop running the ad.

“If pigs fly, yes. Otherwise, no,” he said.

The ad, run by the RGA independently of the Hogan campaign, builds on the governor’s recent description of Jealous as a “far-left socialist.”

The RGA has said it stands by the ad.

The GOP governors group has been spending freely since the June 26 primary on an ad campaign to portray the Democratic nominee as too extreme for Maryland. Its recent ad seeks to firmly pin the label of socialist on him.

To do so, it repeatedly quotes Jealous telling an interviewer: “Go ahead, call me a socialist.” But the ad edits out Jealous’ next sentence: “That doesn’t change the fact I’m a venture capitalist.”

Since leaving his position as president of the NAACP in 2013, Jealous has in fact worked at the investment firm Kapor Capital.

Jealous has consistently pointed to that work as a defense against charges that he is a socialist — a political label regarded as mainstream in many democracies but politically toxic in much of the United States.

Jealous defines himself as a progressive Democrat. In a letter to the Baltimore TV stations, Jealous lawyer James J. Temple Jr. called the RGA ad “outright false and misleading.” He said the ad “deceptively edits” an interview Jealous gave MSNBC the day after the Democratic primary.

Temple warned the stations that unless they stop running the ad immediately, they will violate the Federal Communications Commission’s licensing requirements. Citing a policy that requires broadcasters to “protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising,” Temple told the stations their licenses could be in jeopardy.

Hershkowitz said that while Jealous, a former newspaper reporter, is a First Amendment advocate, he does not believe the ad is protected free speech.

“The ad is false because of the deceptive editing. The meaning of the line changes completely by cutting it in half,” Hershkowitz said. He pointed to several instances around the country in which TV stations stopped running political ads after their targets objected.

Graber said such occurrences are rare. He said the standard under which a station would have to take down an ad is that it is “outright false” or showed “intentional or reckless disregard of the truth.”

‘”Misleading’ doesn’t get you there,” he said. Whether Jealous is a socialist or not is a matter of opinion, Graber said.

“It can’t be proven. I’s not like there’s a standard definition of socialism out there,” he said.

In the end, whether the stations pull the ad might not be the point of the letter. Norris said the Jealous campaign might be happy just to see coverage of the Republican group’s advertising tactics.

John T. Willis, senior executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy, said he’s not sure the RGA ad is in Hogan’s best interests. Willis said that with Donald Trump in the White House, Jealous could gain from having a national Republican group intervene in the race with an ad the campaign can portray as unfair.

“It is in Jealous’ interest to nationalize the election — to have it not be about Hogan but about the Republicans,” Willis said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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