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The truth about political ads: They can include lies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is an election year. And around the country, Americans are about to be inundated with political ads. Those ads can make some outlandish claims. NPR's Domenico Montanaro takes a look at the hard truth in political advertising.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Former President Donald Trump has endorsed dozens of candidates in this election cycle. And there's one thing many of these candidates have in common - they backed Trump's lie that he really won the 2020 presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

KARI LAKE: If you're watching this ad right now, it means you're in the middle of watching a fake news program. You know how to know it's fake? - because they won't even cover the biggest story out there, the rigged election of 2020.

MONTANARO: That's Kari Lake, a Republican running for governor of Arizona. She has Trump's backing, and he's made very clear why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Kari Lake, I tell you, she is incredible. She's been with us from the beginning on the election fraud and everything else. And she's going to be your next governor.

MONTANARO: Court case after court case and multiple audits have proved that there was no widespread fraud in 2020. That includes in Arizona, a state Biden won by about 10,000 votes. But that hasn't stopped candidates like Lake from lying about it. Her campaign didn't respond to a request for comment. Ads like this help raise her profile and curry favor with the Trump base. But it raises the question - can a political candidate just lie in an ad?

TOM WHEELER: Unfortunately, you're allowed to lie.

MONTANARO: Tom Wheeler was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under former President Barack Obama.

WHEELER: The government stepping in and saying, this is good speech, this is bad speech is something that the government has tried to avoid.

MONTANARO: The federal government does regulate truth in advertising, but that only applies to commercial ads, not political ones. In fact, local broadcast channels - think your local NBC, CBS or ABC news stations - are required to air candidates' ads unfiltered, like this, from the Pennsylvania Senate race.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

DR OZ: I'm Dr. Oz, and I approve this message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: First, China sent us COVID. Then David McCormick's hedge fund gave Chinese companies billions.

MONTANARO: While the government has essentially thrown up its hands when it comes to regulating truth in political ads, local broadcast channels can reject ads from outside groups. They often do the dirty work for campaigns, airing lots of negative ads. Here's one from Priorities USA, which supports Democratic candidates, tying former President Trump and Republicans to the January 6 insurrection.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Last time was just a test run. Donald Trump is putting people in place now to dictate the outcome of the next presidential election.

MONTANARO: And cable channels and social media platforms have wider latitude. CNN, for example, declined to air some Trump ads during the 2020 election because they contained falsehoods. Some believe not enough is being done and have called for a neutral government regulator, but that would likely meet a stiff challenge. The FCC's Wheeler.

WHEELER: There's a First Amendment hurdle that has to be crossed, and that has traditionally proven pretty high.

MONTANARO: Various courts have upheld that candidates can say what they want based on the First Amendment. In light of that, Wheeler says there at least needs to be more transparency about who's paying for many of these ads.

WHEELER: You know, a commercial for cornflakes says it's Kellogg's. You know that, right? The problem is that a political ad that is sponsored by Americans for puppies and the flag - you've got no idea who that is.

MONTANARO: Wheeler was getting ready to make a push to require stricter disclosure when he was FCC chairman, but he decided to wait until after the 2016 election. Trump won, and his FCC had no interest in pursuing that. And now, with some $9 billion expected to be spent on political advertising this cycle, there's no filter for truth, and voters will largely be in the dark about who's paying for many of these ads. Domenico Montanaro, NPR News, and I approve this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMATICS' "CLOSER TO GREY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.