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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

He Said, She Said in the NY-20

The latest dust-up in the special election campaign for New York’s 20th district House seat, which we’ve written about here and here, involves the National Republican Trust PAC. It’s a twisted tale.

We’ll start on March 13, when Politico.com’s Ben Smith reported that the National Republican Trust PAC was spending $190,000 to run an ad in the district attacking Democratic candidate Scott Murphy.

But on March 16, the Albany Times-Union reported that the ad had been pulled after running just twice. Times-Union reporter Irene Jay Liu, calling the ad "misleading, to say the least," wrote that the Murphy campaign had contacted WNYT 13, the local NBC affiliate, to complain about the spot. The station, following its policy of asking an ad’s sponsors for evidence of its claims in such cases, requested back-up for the ad’s assertions from the NRT PAC. (Broadcast outlets are under no obligation to air election ads from independent groups, unlike ads from the candidates themselves.) According to the Times-Union report, WNYT 13’s general manager, Steve Baboulis, said that "instead of sending the backup of the spot, [NRT PAC] requested that we pull the spot immediately," but added that the group would submit a replacement ad in the future.

The NRT PAC released a statement that same day calling the Times-Union report "false" and saying that the ad was staying on the air. In the statement, NRT PAC Executive Director Scott Wheeler said: "We provided documentation to the television station to back up the claim Scott Murphy sent a thousand jobs to India instead of New York," adding, "the ad is staying on the air." The statement also said that reporter Liu "falsely accused the organization of attempting to mislead voters of New York’s 20th congressional district when it was she who misled Times-Union readers." Liu wrote about the chain of events for the Times-Union’s "Capitol Confidential" blog.

The next day, March 17, Liu posted a follow-up item on the blog. She’d checked with WNYT 13’s Baboulis, who maintained the station hadn’t received any back-up from the NRT. According to Liu’s blog post, Baboulis said: "They may have sent something – as far as we know, we didn’t have it. My general sales manager does not have any backup received from that group. Our national rep firm who handles that business out of their office, they said did not receive that. The operative message that we got was that that particular copy on that spot was to be discontinued and that we would see more copy forthcoming." We checked with Baboulis, and his account of what happened matches what Liu reported.

Liu also posted part of a heated conversation between Wheeler and herself in which Wheeler objected to her characterization of the group’s ad as "misleading." Liu called the ad misleading, in part, because it claimed that Murphy created 1,000 jobs in India, a reference to an India-based auction Web site that Murphy helped start, and it cited the Times-Union as the source for the claim ("Source: Albany Times-Union, 2/3/09" flashes on screen during the ad). But the article cited doesn’t say that Murphy created 1,000 jobs in India.

Murphy, a local businessman, has made his history of creating jobs in New York a major talking point during his campaign, something his opponents have tried to counter by pointing out his involvement in the development of baazee.com (now eBay.in), an Internet-based company that was established in India.

During their phone conversation, Wheeler told Liu that the source for the claim is actually a report from an Indian publication. However, that report, in the Financial Express of India from March 2000, doesn’t say Murphy created 1,000 jobs in India, either. According to the article, "In less than three months since inception, baazee has set up offices at three other cities in India and has about 30 employees on board." Murphy has said the company’s founders are in India, the buyers and sellers who use the auction site are in India and the company "did not negatively affect anyone in America."

In his statement, Wheeler said that the NRT has resubmitted its ad with the same language as the original, but with an additional message: "Vote against Scott Murphy." Baboulis told us that the station has received the new ad and it began airing as of Tuesday.

The battle for the House seat vacated by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate seat previously occupied by Hillary Clinton, will conclude March 31 when voters go to the polls.

Update: While stations are required to provide air time for candidate ads in an election campaign, they are under no obligation to put ads financed by independent groups on the air. That’s why WNYT 13 could demand back-up from the National Republican Trust PAC. We have added to the text above to reflect that fact.

Clarification, March 20: A station can refuse to run candidate ads, but it would have to refuse to run all candidate ads for a particular office. Once a station accepts one candidate’s ad, it can’t alter the ad, even if the station believes it’s false, and must air all candidate ads subsequently submitted to it. But a station can refuse to run an independent group’s ad, whether others were aired or not.