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EDITORIAL: Disappointing Business Practices of the SMN May Also Violate FEC and Georgia Ethic's Laws

November 25, 2019 – UPDATED:  10:00 p.m. - Yesterday, on Sunday Nov. 24, the Savannah Morning News (SMN) chose to run a full-page ad in support of Eddie DeLoach in the upcoming Dec. 3 Mayoral run-off election, signed by a mysterious group, "“Concerned Citizens for Savannah.” The ad also urges a vote against Alderman Tony Thomas. 

There does not appear to be any such registered political action committee in Chatham County or Georgia. . 

There IS a Facebook blog, run by citizen activist Yolanda Shipp, but followers of her FB page seem to have very different perspectives, and she made clear today that she did NOT pay for the ad. Further, she objected to "someone" using her blog group's name. 

The SMN’s acceptance and publication of the ad appears to violate both Federal Election Commission (FEC) laws and Georgia Campaign Finance and Transparency Commission laws.

When Publisher Michael Traynor was informed Sunday that there was no such registered PAC, and that Georgia and Federal law required what is termed a “Disclaimer” that identifies who PAID for any political ad, he sent representatives of the Van Johnson for Mayor campaign committee an email stating that the SMN would not accept any further ads from the unidentified group.  

Mea culpa … way too late, Mr. Traynor.  

Any reputable newspaper or news media company understands the laws that govern the acceptance of political advertising, including those in the SMN's Advertising department that input that ad, and the Composing department that created it. Everyone in the news business is well-schooled on the many laws governing all forms of advertising.   

One suspects that whomever PAID for the ad did not want to be identified, as no names appeared as members of the mysterious group. No one stepped up to go public with their support of the Mayor’s long-shot chance in the upcoming run-off, or the opposition to Thomas. 

“Any public communication made by a political committee must display a disclaimer ... Moreover, all public communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, electioneering communications, and all public communications that solicit any contribution require a disclaimer, regardless of who has paid for them,” according to the Federal Elections Commission.

“Public communications include electioneering communications and any other form of general public political advertisement, including communications made using the following media:  Broadcast, cable or satellite, Newspaper or magazine, Outdoor advertising facility, Mass mailing (more than 500 substantially similar mailings within 30 days), Phone bank (more than 500 substantially similar calls within 30 days), and Communications placed for a fee on another person’s website,” the FEC states. 

Disclaimers must say: “Authorized and financed by campaign” of a candidate, using the registered name of the campaign as filed with the City Clerk’s office, in compliance with requirements of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. 

“If a covered communication, including any solicitation, is authorized by the candidate or campaign but paid for by another person, the communication must identify the person who paid for it and state that it was authorized by the candidate or campaign.

Campaign staff should also be aware that if a person pays for a covered communication (including any solicitation) that refers to their candidate but is not authorized by any candidate or campaign, the notice must state that it was not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee, identify the entity that paid for the communication and provide at least one of the following: the payor’s permanent street address, telephone number or website address, per the FEC.

All disclaimers must be “clear and conspicuous” regardless of the medium in which the communication is transmitted. A disclaimer is not clear and conspicuous if it is difficult to read or hear, or if its placement is easily overlooked.

“In printed communications, the disclaimer must be contained within a printed box set apart from the contents of the communication. The print of the disclaimer must be of sufficient size to be “clearly readable” by the recipient of the communication, and the print must have a reasonable degree of color contrast between the background and the printed statement. Black text in 12-point font on a white background is one way to satisfy this requirement for printed material measuring no more than 24 inches x 36 inches,” the FEC specifies.

The Georgia language regarding a group of citizens buying any type of “communication” in support or opposition to a candidate or issue must be registered, is also clear.  For those who like to get into the weeds, the Georgia ethics commission outlines:  

A “Political Action Committee” (“PAC”) is a committee, club, association, partnership, corporation, labor union, or other group of persons that receives donations aggregating in excess of $1,000 during a calendar year, then distributes those funds as contributions to one or more campaign committees. O.C.G.A. § 21-5-3(20), O.C.G.A. § 21-5-30.2(a)(4) In Georgia, an independent expenditure only PAC is referred to as an Independent Committee. O.C.G.A. § 21-5-3(15). One organization may operate as both a PAC and Independent Committee so long as that organization uses separate accounting and reporting structures for its independent expenditures and campaign contributions. See GA Gov’t Transparency and Campaign Finance Comm’n Advisory Ops. 2001-32, 2010-02, 2010-05, 2015-02, and 2017-05. An “Independent Expenditure” is an expenditure for a communication which expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is made independently of any candidate’s campaign. Independent, in Georgia, means that the expenditure was not made with the cooperation, consent of, in consultation with, or at the request or suggestion of a candidate, agent, or authorized committee. Ga. Comp. R. & Regs. 189-2-.01(12), and Ga. Comp. R. & Regs. 189-3-.01(9)(f). In Georgia, express advocacy consists of “communications containing express words of advocacy of election or defeat, such as ‘vote for’, ‘elect’, ‘cast your ballot for’, ‘Smith for Congress’, ‘vote against’, ‘defeat’, ‘reject.’ This test is commonly referred to as the “Buckley” or “magic words” test. GA Gov’t Transparency and Campaign Finance Comm’n Advisory Ops. 2001-32, 2010-5, and 2017-05 citing Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 44 (1976). 

Convinced? 

Bottomline, media companies understand full well the laws and requirements for accepting any political advertising, both ads that support or oppose a candidate or those that take a stand on an issue or question on an election ballot.

It isn’t complicated.

Every candidate endorsed by the Savannah Morning News back on Nov. 5 lost their re-election attempt.  The Mayor came in second, far behind Alderman Van Johnson, with only 38.5% of the vote, and his entire slate defeated.

Of course, the Johnson campaign can console themselves with the fact that the Morning News’s total paid print circulation has declined 38% in the last 18 months on Sunday since their Annual Audit, dated March 31, 2018, conducted by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), and 36% Monday through Saturday.  

According to the SMN’s Quarterly Data Report dated Sept. 30, 2019 and filed with AAM, signed by Linwood Price, Circulation Director and Michael Traynor, Publisher, their total individually net paid print circulation in the 15 counties in which they circulate iwas only 13,411 on Sunday, and 12,157 Monday through Saturday, on average, during the 3rd Qtr.  They also have free distribution to area hotels, and their employees and carriers receive a copy of the newspaper. 

Their total individually net paid, print circulation includes their single copy sales of the print edition on newsstands and in coin racks. (One assumes a percentage of those sales are to tourists who are not buying cars … or voting.) 

Their paid, print circulation within the Savannah City limits appears to run about 50% of their total individually net paid circulation in the 15 counties, based on their March 2019 annual audit which provides circulation data by zip code.  They also have approximately 1,400 digital only 'replica' customers - readers who can come from anywhere in the U.S to read the newspaper online.  

Therefore, their home delivery penetration within the Savannah city limits is now so low that the ad may only have been read by a low percentage of voters.

But that does not lessen the disappointing business practices of this media company’s leadership.

 

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