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Between candidates and '527s', broadcast stations get caught

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With election day bearing down, and third-party political groups gobbling up advertising time on the airwaves, The Wall Street Journal reports today that candidates' lawyers…

With election day bearing down, and third-party political groups gobbling up advertising time on the airwaves, The Wall Street Journal reports today that candidates’ lawyers are increasingly responding with take-down notices — all leaving broadcasters in the crossfire.

The Journal recounts how a recent radio advertisement bought by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attacking Sen. Ted Stevens in Alaska prompted the senator’s law firm to press the stations to pull the ad as "factually incorrect and a gross distortion of the real facts." At least one station refused to take the ad off the air, The Journal reports.

But if a political candidate had paid for it, the issue likely would never have come up in the first place.

That’s because the obligation that stations have to run candidates’ ads doesn’t extend to air time bought by third-party groups, The Journal says. Thus ads bought by "527" groups — so-called because of the tax code section that applies to them — are particularly "vulnerable" to attack. And the broadcasters are left to field the complaints.

“If you’re these affiliates, you’re under siege,” former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner told the paper.

The Journal reports that political advertising is expected to reach nearly $3 billion this year, compared with $1 billion in 2000. Candidates are reacting to 527s more aggressively than they did in 2004, when the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was widely seen as having damaged John Kerry’s presidential bid.

Many stations are resisting the wave of “cease and desist” demands, the newspaper reports. Mike Burgess, general manager of the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, told The Journal, “I think candidates want us to become the censors . . . I don’t think that’s our job.”