Local TV stations in the middle of campaign ad controversy

A side by side comparison shows Mayor’s Lightfoot on the left and an image taken from Dan Proft’s ad from the right. (NBC News)

Ad featured a darkened Mayor Lightfoot and violent images, but is it enough to be rejected by local TV stations?

For those hoping local TV stations would reject an obviously racist and violent campaign ad running for the past week, it may – or may not happen.

In the last week, a Political Action Committee – or PAC, bought time on local stations across the state on the behalf of long-shot Republican gubernational candidate Darren Bailey who’s running against incumbent J.B. Pritzker. In the thirty-second commercial, the ad shows an obviously darkened Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot declaring the “Summer Of Joy” for Chicagoans, followed by surveillance footage of shootings, carjackings, beatings, and gunfire – warning the violence of Chicago is coming to the suburbs (I guess the PAC thinks Harvey, Robbins, Maywood, and Dolton are city neighborhoods.) This space discussed PACs before when then-Gov. Bruce Rauner created one to address then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s hold on state government.  

The commercials come as for years, Republicans have painted Chicago as a violent no-man’s land since President Obama was elected in 2008, and amped up further after Donald Trump started attacking the city during his presidential campaign and his entire reign as 45th President. Republicans and the media used Chicago as an example of big-city dysfunction and as a code word for violent Black people. And now there’s an ad to back it up, which no doubt has Trump and his MAGA fanbase smiling (click here to see the video – WARNING: viewer discretion is advised.)

The ad has come under fire from Democrats and others for showing violent content and stereotypical images of African-Americans committing crimes and has run on local TV in numerous dayparts, especially when children may be watching. The PAC is called People Who Play By The Rules and run by WIND-AM morning co-host Dan Proft, who didn’t seem to have sympathy for those offended by the ad.

“It’s insane, it’s pathetic,” Proft told ABC 7 Chicago. “It’s [Mayor Lightfoot] who is trying to do the old race hustle that we know very well in Chicago.”

The ad is reminiscent of the Willie Horton one used by the GOP in the 1988 Presidential Campaign, created by a political operative who once worked for Roger Ailes, who would later head Fox News. “Historically, those ads do work,” Northwestern University political science professor Jamie Dominguez told ABC 7 Chicago. “They do have a way of impacting and getting the base to actually respond to that. This is nothing new. We’re going to see this particularly as we move closer to November.” Republican George H.W. Bush won the election that year, defeating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

So you’re wondering…can local TV stations ban the ad due to its violent and racist content? Well, it depends.

According to the Broadcast Law Blog, local TV stations and cable/satellite operators cannot censor candidate commercials – that is, one made by the candidate, no matter how violent, racist, or false they appear to be thanks to a “no censorship” rule, except when it comes to obscenity. The ads can’t be edited or altered either, i.e. adding a warning for violent content. The rule is written into the 1934 Communications Act, and if they pull an ad from a candidate, a local station could be breaking federal law, which could result in a loss of their FCC license.

However, if it comes from a third party – such as a PAC, local stations can make editorial decisions on whether or not to run the ad. But the problem is, the ads use the same kind of footage newscasts used in their stories so if they reject them, the PAC could accuse local stations of being hypocritical. “If the ad comes from an outside group, like a political party or an interest group of a Super PAC, then the stations can make editorial decisions about whether or not to run the ads,” said University of Minnesota campaign advertising law expert Christopher Terry in a 2020 interview with Tegna NBC affiliate KARE in Minneapolis.

In the view of this writer, the ads ran on Fox 32 and CBS 2 several times, and it is not known how many local stations rejected the ad, if any. Much of PWPBTR’s ad campaign for Bailey has been focused on business owners complaining about Illinois’ business climate under Pritzker.

Dan Proft

So far, outrage of the ad has been mostly limited to politicians, proving the lessening power of linear TV – obviously a benefit for Proft, Bailey, & Co. Or maybe, we’re used to this stuff from these guys. But once upon a time, these same type of people lost their collective heads over Nipplegate, bringing the issues of sex and violence back into focus and in front on Congress and later, an overzealous Republican FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin. Conservative groups like the Parents Television Council railed against shows like The Sopranos and Family Guy as of course, these guys are nowhere to be found in this instance. If anyone is hypocritical over anything, it’s Republicans – Janet Jackson exposing her nipple on TV is a horror show but showing criminals in a shootout is fine. OK, got it. 

What’s more galling is entertainment programming is to subject to parental TV ratings by law thanks to mandatory V-Chips in sets, which hardly anyone uses – or understands. News programming and commercials – political included are exempted, creating a double standard and creating more frustration for parents who try to keep their kids from violent images.

This whole sad scenario is the downside of local TV stations chasing political revenue, particularly after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling let third-party organizations spend unlimited money on ads as the Proft commercial is funded by a conservative, wealthy office supplies king from Wisconsin. It hurts local TV’s reputation, but certainly the Nexstars and Sinclairs of the world don’t care as in every quarterly earnings report, they boast about how great political ad revenue is for their station groups – they’re not turning down PAC money no matter how offensive the ads are. With political advertisers preferring local news, it is any wonder why NBC is mulling giving the last hour of prime-time back to affiliates and stations are cutting back on syndicated shows? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Dan Proft’s PAC commercial wouldn’t fly on The Jennifer Hudson Show.

Barring a unforeseen miracle, it’s a no-brainer Gov. Pritzker would be re-elected rather easily in a deep blue state as the opposition reeks in desperation. But their display leaves a lot left to be desired.


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