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WOI’s Super PAC Smackdown

Broadcasters are looking at mining an even bigger political advertising lode with the rise of Super PACs spending unlimited money to elect candidates. Some of that take will come from corporations now freed by the Supreme Court to directly fund said ads. But at least one TV station turned down some Super PAC money recently, and even spent some coin—on legal fees—to ensure it was making the right call.

The station is Citadel Communications' WOI-TV in Des Moines, which had the mixed fortune of being one of several Iowa stations Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC targeted with a “multihundred- dollar” buy for its first " ight of campaign ads earlier this month.

There was a silver lining in all this for WOI: namely, the not-quite-free publicity its local news team gained on national cable TV.

WOI is as happy to make money from political ads as the next station, but 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 Texas 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,” Cole 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 [in the position] 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. (Cole, in fact, was already quite familiar with the feel of Colbert’s Emmy statue; 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 said there were several issues involved, 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 to pass. “I know I spent more money on attorney fees than what the amount of the order was,” he said.

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 third-party ads, since stations are at least theoretically liable for their content.

Cole told B&C that in conversations with Colbert after that Aug. 11 broadcast, he pointed out that as head of the ABC affiliate board in 2008, 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 if you count the Emmy—which he e-mailed to Colbert.

Colbert apologized on his Aug. 15 show, confirming Cole’s Emmy handling 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 actually 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, according to 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 said it had already made follow-up calls. And on its own dime.

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