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WOI's Super PAC Smackdown

Broadcasters are looking at getting an even bigger political advertising take with the rise of Super PACs spending unlimited money to elect candidates, some of it from corporations now freed by the Supreme Court to directly fund those ads. But at least one TV station turned down some Super PAC money recently, and even spent money -- on legal fees -- to make sure it was making the right call.

The result had a silver lining, though, resulting in the not-quite-free publicity -- the above-mentioned fees -- for its local news team on national cable TV.

The station is Raycom's WOI, which had the mixed fortune of being one of several Iowa stations Stephen Colbert's Super PAC targeted with a "multi-hundred-dollar" buy for its first flight of campaign ads earlier this month.

But while WOI is as happy to make money from political ads as the next station, the spots posed a problem. The Colbert PAC, which is primarily meant to be a vehicle for satire, produced ads asking voters in the Iowa Republican straw poll to write in Tex.  Governor Rick Perry's name misspelled as "Parry," with "an A for America."

WOI GM Ray Cole said the station ultimately turned down the spots over concerns they would confuse voters.

 "What we struggled with were that these spots were intended to run around the Republican debate and just ahead of the Republican straw poll," he said. "We took the position that the poll has typically pretty significant impact on shaping the field and the fact that the election was being overseen by the Iowa secretary of state's office and with the involvement of county election officials, and they were trying to run the election with integrity. To be running spots that were overtly a call to action to vote for a candidate spelled incorrectly and putting election officials of having to discern the intent of the voter, we just didn't think we should be a party to that."

Colbert made much of the WOI decision not to run the ads -- at least a couple of stations in the market did agree to carry the spot, according to Cole.  Colbert, or at least Colbert as his ultra-conservative TV persona, called the station and Cole out on his Aug. 11 show, suggesting WOI was Emmy-light and might want to "touch" his statue.  Actually, Cole already had, but more on that later.

While Colbert suggested the station purposely waited until the 11th hour to decide not to run the spots after initially agreeing to, and taking the money, Cole says there were several issues, including late revisions to the spot and a disclaimer that was not of the required length. Cole reviewed the last-minute revisions with Washington attorneys before deciding not to run the spot. "I know I spent more money on attorneys' fees than the amount of the order was."

Cole was not alone in his concerns for abetting the ads mischief.  In a blog posting, communications lawyer David Oxenford, said that not only was the station within its rights to reject the ads, but had an even greater responsibility to vet the third-party ads, since stations are at least theoretically liable for the content in those ads. (To read the full blog entry, click here.)

Cole told B&C that in conversations with Colbert after that Aug. 11 broadcast, he pointed out that he had been at the Emmys when Colbert won an award, and had offered to hold it for him while Colbert went to the men's room. After Colbert took him up on the offer, he even had a photo taken of the two of them -- three, including the Emmy, which he e-mailed to Colbert.

Colbert apologized in his Aug. 15 show, confirming Cole's Emmy touching and then even included the station's news team in an Aug. 18 follow-up on a separate issue -- the Iowa Republican party's refusal to release the write-in ballots so Colbert could find out how many "Parry" votes were cast. Colbert knew of at least one because the voter had tweeted a picture of his ballot.

WOI's news team also requested the ballots, said Cole, but because it was a Republican straw poll, it was not subject to a FOIA request, he said. Colbert called on the station to investigate that lack of cooperation, but Cole says it had already made follow-up calls on its own dime.