And now a word from our sponsor, Bill Clinton

National | Clinton campaign used FCC rules to buy misleading ads on Christian radio; one company gave proceeds to charity

Issue: "Modern martyrs," Nov. 30, 1996

The order for the radio ad came over the fax machine like most other orders for air time from furniture companies and travel agents. But this ad wasn't selling sofas or cruises. It was selling Bill Clinton's version of the truth about his position on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality.

"I was very surprised when the fax came across," said Dan Craig, general manager of Christian radio station WRFD in Columbus, Ohio. "My first reaction was disbelief that the Clinton campaign would approach Christian radio. Then my thoughts turned to disgust at the thought of what would probably come down."

Mr. Craig wasn't the only surprised general manager. The Clinton campaign targeted a handful of Christian stations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states, which ignited outrage from listeners unfamiliar with federal law regarding radio stations and federal elections.

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The Federal Communications Commission requires all commercial radio stations to sell air time to any qualified federal candidate.

Station managers had no choice but to broadcast the Clinton ads, which contained false positive claims about a presidential candidate whose positions are opposed to their own. "We started getting calls from our managers," said Chuck Merritt, national news and public affairs director for Salem Broadcast Corp. The Clinton campaign bought about $90,000 worth of time from 50 Salem stations. "They [the managers] said, 'Our listeners are irate. What do we do?' Our talk shows and other talk shows were covering it even outside of Pennsylvania and Ohio. There was a lot of buzz about it. We got calls from Focus on the Family and a lot of other groups."

The ads were placed by Salem Radio Representatives (SRR), a subsidiary of Salem that represents more than 400 Christian stations.

The Dole campaign already had bought advertising through SRR when a Washington ad agency approached Salem agent Judy Palmore about buying time on Christian radio for the Clinton campaign. In addition to the Salem purchase, the Washington agency of Squier, Knapp, and Ochs bought $3,000 worth of time from three stations owned by Bott Radio Network.

The campaign ads touted Clinton's embrace of traditional values: "There's a value we all teach our children and practice ourselves--telling the truth," the first ad began. The ad was primarily an attack on Bob Dole, but it included this passage: "Desperate, [Mr. Dole] is attacking President Clinton on late-term abortions. Fact: President Clinton supports a complete ban on the late-term abortion procedure, except when the mother's life is in danger, or faces severe health risks, such as the inability to have another child."

The ad ended with this: "So don't let Bob Dole fool us. He just doesn't share our values."

The second spot focused more directly on Mr. Clinton, mentioning Bob Dole only twice, and accusing Mr. Dole of "resorting to untrue, negative attacks."

The ads, said Salem's Mr. Merrit, are "insulting. The guy [Mr. Clinton] thinks we're idiots, I guess." Whatever else Mr. Clinton might think, self-identified Christian voters supported the president's reelection in surprisingly high numbers. According to the Christian Coalition's own survey after the election, 36 percent of "born-again" Christians who attend church regularly voted for Mr. Clinton.

The media companies handled the ads in different ways. The Bott network donated the money it received to crisis pregnancy centers in the markets where the ad was broadcast. "While federal regulations require us to carry the commercials and take the money, they cannot restrict us from giving that money away as a donation to these groups that are really trying to stop the killing of America's most innocent human beings," said network president Dick Bott.

Dan Craig of Columbus reacted immediately after receiving the order by broadcasting an editorial that advised listeners the station had no choice but to accept all legitimate political advertising. And he warned listeners that political ads don't have to be truthful. "Congress says, 'It's anything goes,'" he editorialized, "and therefore politicians are free to lie. And beware of political ads because they could be bait and switch."

Both Bott and Salem broadcast disclaimers with the ad, which informed listeners the stations were airing the advertisements only because they were required by law to do so. "Our audience really appreciated it," says Russ Whitnah, general manager of WFIL in Philadelphia, which ran disclaimers about the ads throughout the day. Listeners viewed the ads as a "betrayal." Mr. Whitnah said, "Quite frankly, they didn't know" about the FCC regulations. "This helped them understand how the political game is played."

But Salem's president, Ed Atsinger, went even further. He wrote and taped four editorials that were critical of Bill Clinton and his ad campaign. And instead of running them only on the stations that originally broadcast them, Mr. Atsinger put them on all of Salem's stations.


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