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At least one person at CNN or its parent company, apparently, has just discovered that political advertisements can sometimes be partisan and reductionist.
Maybe they suffered profound amnesia after they got a job as a media gatekeeper. Whatever the case, this discovery makes them unhappy — which, join the club.
This presents an issue, however, when this discovery leads to CNN refusing to run a pro-Donald Trump politician action committee’s ad because its claim that Joe Biden will raise taxes on middle-class voters supposedly “has been judged false by independent fact-checkers.”
The ad by America First Action — the biggest pro-Trump super PAC, according to The Hill — is pretty standard fare as far as political ads go. It’s almost like a plug-and-play template of the “ominous music” ad: Opening with a picture of Biden raising a glass alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and then moving to a photoshopped image of him with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it says that the former vice president “coddled the communists” and “sided with socialists.”
“Now, Joe Biden is lying,” the narrator intones in all of his vocal fry-registered glory. “He will raise taxes on the middle class and his liberal agenda will cost millions of jobs.”
Segue to Trump voters at a rally: “But we won’t let him,” the narrator says. The colors get warmer, the ominous plinking on the soundtrack is replaced with stirring strings and the president is shown is shown in poses of resolute strength and vigor.
If you’ve watched an episode of “Jeopardy” for the past few months, you’ve seen these commercials, arguably far too often. They aren’t designed to be Apple’s “1984” ad. They use simple language combined with familiar visual and audio tropes in order to, if effective, create a slight visceral tinge in the mind of the undecided voter.
Democrats use them. Republicans use them. If the Working Families Party had the money, they’d use them, too. They’re not particularly original, but apparently they don’t have to be.
Inasmuch as this genre of political advertisement exists and will continue to exist, there’s nothing especially objectionable about this one.
Indeed, ABC, AMC, Cooking, CBS, Comcast, DIY, Discovery, ESPN, Food Network, Fox, HGTV, History, Lifetime and The Weather Channel have all agreed to run it, according to The Hill. The only holdouts were two WarnerMedia properties: CNN and TNT.
“WarnerMedia Commercial Clearance has not accepted America First Action’s advertisement ‘We Are America’ for its networks as the ad does not meet its commercial clearance standards,” a WarnerMedia account executive said in an email, according to The Hill.
“Specifically, the ad asserts that Biden will raise taxes on the middle class. That claim is not adequately substantiated and has been judged false by independent fact-checkers. The advertisement also mischaracterizes Nancy Pelosi as a socialist.”
A WarnerMedia ad sales spokesperson added that the ad “was not approved to air across WarnerMedia’s networks.”
“The advertiser was unable to provide adequate substantiation for claims made in the ad. On October 22, 2020, WarnerMedia Ad Sales notified the campaign’s ad agency, Del Rey Media, that this ad was not approved to air across WarnerMedia’s networks.”
For the unfamiliar, Biden plans to repeal President Trump’s tax cuts if elected, but claims that he’ll do so in a way that no one earning under $400,000 will pay higher taxes. The Trump campaign says the Biden tax plan will end up raising taxes on the middle class — and in addition, taxpayers will see lower wages and investment returns due to the plan relying on ratcheting up business taxes.
CNN was the only news network to effectively declare the ad “false.” To be fair, AFA apparently never tried to run it on NBC or MSNBC, who might have used the same logic.
The ad itself cites two sources for its information, a National Review article and an a March analysis by the Tax Policy Center.
The National Review article cited an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. It’s worth noting the Tax Policy Center’s analysis in March was superseded by an analysis released earlier this month claiming tweaks to Biden’s plan had made it so the middle class, on average, wouldn’t really see their taxes hiked.
A letter from AFA’s attorney cited other analyses by the Tax Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, among others. Some of the analyses, the lawyer said, found that the middle class would see lower wages and investment returns because of Biden’s reliance on corporate tax hikes.
“While AFA’s opponents are, of course, permitted to purchase air time to try to rebut AFA’s claims, it is not the job of your network to censor a statement that is factually supported and relates to an important issue in the upcoming election,” Stephen Kenny, a lawyer at Jones Day who represents AFA, told WarnerMedia in a letter.
“Indeed, every other cable network is currently airing AFA’s ad. If you continue to decline to air the ad, please let us know why the factual support outlined above is insufficient.”
Kenny also defended the use of the word “socialist” to describe Nancy Pelosi, saying it was “often used in political discourse to signify generally a set of left-leaning political positions.”
“Pelosi favors tuition-free community college, universal subsidized child care, and universal health care,” Kenny wrote.
“The ad does not imply she advocates for a more aggressive strain of ‘socialism’ whereby the government controls all means of production. Instead, the ad describes accurately where her positions on key issues place her on the political spectrum.”
As evidence for this kind of language is part of our political discourse, Kenny cited a recent episode of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN in which Stelter and a guest “engaged in a lengthy discussion comparing President Trump to a fascist leader and ‘Trumpism’ to fascism.” One imagines a certain grin on Mr. Kenny’s face as he typed that line out.
This isn’t substantively different from a whole category of negative political ads appearing on TV this fall.
Whether or not CNN likes that category of ads is irrelevant — it airs plenty of them. WarnerMedia’s statement doesn’t substantiate any distortion or dissembling in this particular commercial. It’s not “Firing Line,” but it’s sourced properly.
No, no one particularly likes seeing these ads. CNN’s gatekeepers can’t feign amnesia, however, and suddenly act shocked that a 30-second political advertisement looks like a 30-second political advertisement. This is a purely political decision.