Alleged liar, liar: Perriello wants Goode TV ads dropped
Fifth District Democratic congressional candidate Tom Perriello has asked television stations to stop airing an ad from incumbent Virgil Goode that contains "a flat-out lie" and is "libelous," according to the Perriello campaign.
The Goode commercial says Perriello opposes offshore drilling, a claim the Perriello people vehemently deny.
Charlottesville attorney Lloyd Snook sent a letter to television stations citing libel law from the New York Times v. Sullivan U.S. Supreme Court decision that specifies "actual malice" and "reckless disregard" for the truth in proving libel [or in this case, slander] of a political figure.
"We do not expect you to act as a censor, prejudging all advertisements that are offered to you," wrote Snook. "But we do expect that when you are confronted with clear proof that a particular advertisement is false, you will refuse to run the advertisement in question. You owe your viewers that much."
NBC29 general manager Harold Wright says he can't pull the ad. "I'm legally prohibited." He quotes both the federal Communications Act of 1934 and the FCC, which say broadcast licensees have no power of censorship of the material broadcast by a legally qualified candidate for public office. Wright says he can't remember a campaign ever asking a TV station to pull an ad.
"It's not something that's commonly done because [campaign managers] know that law," says Wright, adding, "We cannot censor–- and there have been some awful things in political ads."
"We're not suing anyone," clarifies Perriello communications director Jessica Barba, who also objects to a "doctored" photo in the Goode ad that's "about ten times darker than the original." The photo makes Perriello "look scarier than he is," says Barba.
The traditional response to a political ad with alleged untruths is firing back with a new ad that alleges the opponent is a liar. The Perriello campaign does not intend to take that path. "This isn't the kind of thing we need to respond to with paid advertising," says Barba. "This is more of desperation on [Goode's] part."
Goode, in Washington voting against the $700-billion bailout, had not responded to a request for comment at press time, but the six-term congressman has stomped Democratic contenders who could only pull in 36 percent of the vote in recent elections, with challenger Al Weed chipping that margin to 20 points in 2006. An August poll showed Goode leading Perriello 64 percent to 30 percent.
Barba and Snook held a press conference this afternoon in front of NBC29. Barba concedes there may be a legal requirement for television stations to run the ad, but "morally and ethically they should say the ad has libelous material," she admonishes.
"Harold Wright knows the law," says Snook, admitting that he "didn't have access to that code." Nonetheless, says Snook, "It certainly gives you a moral obligation to make sure the public gets the truth."
Over at the Center for Politics at UVA, director of communications Cordel Faulk can't say he's ever heard of a candidate asking a station to pull an opponent's ad. "I think what it shows is the race is heating up," he says. "Both candidates are running like they're 20 points behind."
Is it naive–- or shrewd–- for Perriello to bring up the fact that political ads sometimes distort the truth? "He's a Yale-educated lawyer," observes Faulk. "I'd have a hard time calling him naive."
What the strategy may have accomplished: "It has a lot of people," says Faulk, "talking about this today who wouldn't otherwise."