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On April 26, the US death toll from COVID-19 exceeded 52,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there are six new possible symptoms of the coronavirus that Americans should be aware of. And President Donald Trump tweeted that the White House news about the virus “is not worth the time and effort!”
The very next day, a bright yellow full-page ad appeared on the back of the front section of the Miami Herald welcoming Trump for his leadership and appeared to praise his response to the pandemic.
“‘God bless you sir'” reads the ad. “We appreciate your guidance.”
The source of the ad was unclear. The only clue was a line at the bottom that said “Paid by PII”.
Screenshot via Miami Herald
The New Times reached out to the Miami Herald to ask who bought the ad and whether the newspaper reviewed it before it was published. In an email reply, editor-in-chief Mindy Marques said the ad was paid for by a company called Polo International Incorporated – a Broward-based roofer whose website boasts of being “the largest silicone roofing installer in the US.” be.
The ad shouldn’t have been published, Marques said.
“An ad that appeared in the Sunday April 26th edition of the Miami Herald did not meet our political / advocacy guidelines. We apologize for the mistake,” she wrote. “Before being published, all political ads must go through an internal review process and comply with standardized disclosure requirements. We have checked this oversight with all parties involved and will ensure that our strict guidelines are also adhered to in the future.”
Marques did not respond to a follow-up request for details about these guidelines.
The ad raises broader questions about what a political ad represents, who can legally place it, and whether such ad must or should clearly state who paid for it.
Because the ad didn’t include the company’s full name, Herald readers had no way of knowing who placed it or for what purpose, said Brendan Fischer, campaign funding expert at the impartial Campaign Legal Center.
“It could be that PII is not a legal entity at all,” said Fischer. “It could be initials. It could be a made up name. It could be a cat’s name. We don’t really know.”
Fischer said this was particularly worrying because the ad was run during a presidential campaign in a major swing state.
“It’s a challenge and a problem because that ad probably cost a lot of money,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t trigger any explicitly [legally required] When reporting on campaign funding, voters have the right to know who is trying to influence their vote. “
In a telephone interview with the New Times, Polo’s Vice President Robert Kaplan confirmed that his company ran the ad but said it “had nothing to do with politics” and as a general thank you to Trump for his response to the crisis.
“He’s our president. Republican or Democrat – we don’t care,” said Kaplan. “We wanted to show support for him and the country and greet everyone at the front.”
Kaplan, who has personally donated more than $ 10,000 to committees in support of Trump and the Republican Party since 2016, said he failed to include his company’s full name on the ad due to possible setbacks.
“There are a lot of crazy people out there and the country is divided,” he said. “There are people who really hate the president and we run a business.”
Kaplan said a number of his colleagues at Polo and outside the company came in to pay for the advertisement. He disagreed with Marques and Fischer that readers of the newspaper should know who ran the ad – and he threatened to sue the New Times if his company’s name appeared in that story.
“If you put my company name on something you write about us putting this ad out, I’ll bring a lawsuit so mind-boggling that you won’t know what hit you,” he said.
Kaplan is mistaken about a publication’s initial customization right to report the source of the advertisement. However, due to inconsistencies in the provisions for federal elections, buying the full-page Herald from Polo does not violate any applicable laws.
Lee Goodman, a former chairman of the FEC, described the ad as “perfectly legal”.
“This ad does not require sponsor identification by law as it did not specifically endorse Trump’s election or defeat and was published in print,” Goodman said.
Goodman and three other experts contacted by the New Times referred to the Buckley Supreme Court v Valeo ruling in 1976 that the federal government’s restrictions on political communication only apply to advertisements expressly advocating a candidate or his opponent by using words like “vote for”, “support” or “defeat”.
However, had the ad appeared in the broadcast media rather than the Herald, it would likely have required disclosure of the buyer’s full name under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.
In such cases, “FCC rules apply because you are using a public good,” said Goodman. “I would probably say if I run a broadcaster and someone brings this ad to me to run on video or even a radio spot, I would say that it is politically themed and that I need to identify a sponsor.”
Chisun Lee, assistant director of electoral reform program at the impartial Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, said the inconsistency highlighted a key problem with current political advertising regulations.
“The federal rules on transparency in campaign advertising need to be modernized for today,” said Lee. “This ad shows a few different problems where only the voter knows who is behind the ad and what interests they have and how [the voter] should interpret the message they see. “
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Jessica Lipscomb is the Miami New Times news editor and an avid Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.