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A Strategy for Filtering America's Toxic Sludge of Political Advertising

Until media firms are forced to disclose where the ad dollars for this mendacious propaganda comes from, believe nothing

Two years ago, in the weeks before America's 2010 elections, I suggested that the safest strategy for voters was to disbelieve all political advertising. It's even more important now.

The barrage of lies and distortions this year is looking to dwarf what we saw in the last national campaign. But this time, a huge amount of the money being spent to poison voters' minds is coming from people who lack the honor and/or courage to admit what they're doing.

The ads range from slimy to scurrilous, and come mostly from the political right. Those are intended to put Mitt Romney in the White House and install a firmly hard-right Congress, as well as electing Republicans in state races around the nation. The biggest of the organizations creating the ads are giving anonymity to their funders. They are funded by unnamed people and corporations, and congressional Republicans have seen to it these cowards can snipe with impunity.

Two of what ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization, calls "dark-money" groups are out-raising and out-spending the organizations that (by law) must say who pays the bills. The two mega-money groups are "Crossroads GPS" and "Americans for Prosperity" – the former is a brainchild of Republican operative (and News Corp's Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist) Karl Rove – and the latter is believed to get at least some of its money from the mega-rich Koch family, which has made a mission of returning America to the lamented era of domination by robber barons.

Little of their sludge lands on me. I use the web much more than TV, and I have a hard-disk video recorder in between my satellite dish and television, so I never watch live TV anymore. The recorder, connected to a satellite system, has a button that makes 30 seconds disappear; I use it liberally, and advertising has essentially disappeared from my viewing.

But most American television viewers don't have or use such aids, and can scarcely avoid the onslaught of negative ads. They're directly in the advertisers' cross-hairs if they live in "swing states", where the outcome of the presidential race is in doubt. (I live in California, where the outcome of presidential and Senate races is not in doubt; the sleazy ads will come later and address, if that's the right word, a variety of ballot propositions.)

One of the great scandals in this rancid avalanche is something Americans won't be told by the broadcasters: the TV networks and local stations are making immense profits from these political ads. Hundreds of millions of dollars will flow into the coffers of media companies this year from these sources. The very notion that TV "news" – a word that almost always belongs in sarcastic quotes – would bite the hand that feeds it is, well, absurd. Television is complicit in this thoroughly corrupt system.

We need two kinds of disclosure. One is to unmask the anonymous cowards who pay for the rancid advertising. Since that won't happen as long as Republicans can block legislation, we can at least force some disclosure on the media companies. Naturally, the media industry has been fighting even tame federal regulations that would require the biggest broadcasters to disclose online what they're being paid, and by which organizations, for political advertising. The hypocrisy of media conglomerates, which (occasionally) insist on transparency in government but resist it themselves, is unsurprising.

Several journalism and public-interest groups, including ProPublica and Free Press, are trying to persuade citizen journalists in local communities to visit broadcasters' premises and copy the documents which those companies legally must file on paper already, and then post the results online. This is a useful exercise, especially given that the FCC rules – assuming they're ever obeyed or enforced – apply only to major TV markets.

In the end, we need to persuade the voters that they should do more than ignore the sleazy advertising. They should assume that what they're seeing and hearing is false. This is a hard idea to sell, because at least some of the political advertising has to contain at least some truth. The problem is that we can't know what is truthful and what's not – and we're crazy if we trust anything we're told by people who hide anonymously in the shadows. Since Congress won't insist on disclosure, the only practical approach for now is to believe nothing.