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.
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.
"We were a little... upset that the Clinton campaign would choose that subject matter and advertise in such a way that we felt was very misleading, grossly misleading," said Salem's Stuart Epperson. "We felt compelled to do editorials pointing that out. We felt that our listeners got the point when we did our editorials, that they understood that [the ads were] a campaign deception."
Mr. Atsinger's editorial about Bill Clinton and religious freedom began: "Does Bill Clinton believe Christian radio listeners are totally gullible?" He attacked Clinton on two points, including comments made by Joycelyn Elders, Clinton's former surgeon general.
And in the one about abortion, Mr. Atsinger said: "Bill Clinton has consistently supported partial-birth abortion. He has supported the expansion of fetal tissue research. He's worked to make abortion more accessible in U.S. military hospitals. His latest ads are deceptive, and they insult Christian radio listeners." The other two pounded Mr. Clinton for his support of the homosexual agenda and his weakened and ineffective war on illicit drugs. All four editorials ended with: "Mr. Clinton, your actions speak louder than your words."
Salem took a calculated risk in running the editorials. By law, they were required to submit the transcripts of the editorials and a broadcast schedule to the Clinton/Gore campaign. The stations would have to provide free airtime every time one was broadcast, if campaign officials wanted to respond.
They did. In responding to the editorials, the Clinton campaign sought the endorsement of two ministers. Their scripts were almost identical, with the exception of their names and years of ministry. The first one to arrive at Salem headquarters in California began: "My name is Timothy Shirley. I've been in the ministry for 15 years. I don't much care for politics... ."
The second was done by Hugh Tobias, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Madison, Ala. Both ads repeated verbatim many of the phrases in the original Clinton ad. "My name is Hugh Tobias. I've been in the ministry for 22 years," he said. "I don't much care for politics. But when I heard the editorials attacking President Clinton, I thought Christian radio listeners deserved to know the truth... .
"He supports a complete ban on late-term abortion procedures except under extraordinary circumstances, when the mother's life is in danger or faces a serious health risk, like the inability to have another child... .
"Christian radio listeners deserve the truth--President Clinton shares our values."
Salem's Mr. Merritt said, "The seed of the whole thing was them actually buying advertisements. The battle that ensued was they kept the advertisements on, but we launched our editorials, and they launched their response.
"We were hoping they wouldn't, of course, but we felt that they would because we thought they were so brazen to purchase air time on Christian radio and make those deceptive assertions. We were pretty much assuming they would. We were very careful. We dotted every i, crossed every t, because we want to be above reproach with the FCC. We were prepared for them to do that, and they did.
"We were on a week before they responded. Then it was one for one. We had to hold our noses. I think Ed still felt in the end that we had to go out and say what we believe."
In a telephone interview with WORLD from his home in Alabama, Mr. Tobias said he didn't know how or why the campaign found him. "I got a phone call from a production company in Washington asking me if I would be willing to do that," he said. His voice also was used in TV versions of the ad.
Reaction to his participation has been mixed, said Mr. Tobias, who calls himself a moderate. "I got calls from people I haven't ever heard from," he said. He declined several times to discuss any criticism, to discuss his positions on the issues he raised in the ad, or to discuss how he feels about Mr. Clinton's handling of the issues. "I would prefer," he said, "not to get into any of the issues."
Mr. Tobias acknowledged he didn't write the scripts, but insisted he did have "input." He declined to name his church, the name of which WORLD verified through another source. "I really don't want to get the church in the middle of this," Mr. Tobias said. "The church and I at this point don't need to be connected in the press in any way." But he doesn't regret making the ad. "I'm not sure that people understood the real motive behind it," he said, "which was to draw attention to other perspectives on the roles that Christians can have, aside from that espoused by the Christian Coalition, and the voter guides particularly."
While the advertising ordeal was stressful, said Salem's Mr. Craig, the result was positive. "I think we as broadcasters were successful in educating our audience... a federal candidate can lie and not be accountable."