JUNEAU - Alaska broadcasters said Tuesday that they'd decide for themselves whether to run ads by a national tea party group that U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's campaign called "littered with lies and intentional mischaracterizations."
This follows a letter sent to TV stations around the state late Monday by Murkowski attorney Timothy McKeever, warning them not to air the ads from Tea Party Express, a California-based group that supports Murkowski's GOP rival Joe Miller.
The letter doesn't threaten legal action but says stations have a "legal and moral obligation" not to air the ad, which the group rush-produced and unveiled for reporters Monday. As of Tuesday, it hadn't yet bought airtime but planned to do so in the coming days. It is currently available on YouTube.
Susan Lucas, general manager of KTUU in Anchorage, said she considers the warning letter a "big old publicity stunt" and said she doesn't censor on the public airwaves.
"We have to offer access for the conversation, part of the conversation, anyway," she said, adding that she's allowed on the air pro-Murkowski content. "What basis would I have to deny the Tea Party Express?"
She and other television general managers who spoke with The Associated Press on Tuesday said that any time concerns are raised, they pay attention, wanting to make sure those are presented to an ad's producers and to ask for documentation or proof they may have for the flag-raising claims.
Federal law doesn't require stations to air third party ads and broadcasters could be subject to legal liability for running content they know to be "knowingly false," media attorney John McKay said. But that's a high bar, he said, and stations aren't required to vet ads for errors.
The law doesn't state that an ad can't run if two sides are saying two different things, and the station doesn't know for sure what's right, he said.
In this case, Tea Party Express stands behind the ad, entitled "Arrogant Lisa Murkowski - You Lost!" It seeks to paint Murkowski as more interested in political self-preservation than in serving the interests of Alaskans. Murkowski is undertaking a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary to Miller.
It claims she didn't "earn" her Senate seat; that she "tried to influence" the absentee vote count in the primary and that she "tried to manipulate the Libertarian party into giving her their slot" on the ballot - claims McKeever called "materially false."
"This improper, inaccurate and deceptive advertising indicates a disturbing disregard for the truth and a blatant effort to mislead Alaska voters by an outside special interest entity," he wrote.
Levi Russell, a Tea Party Express spokesman, said the ad contains a "truthful" message, albeit one that shows Murkowski in a negative light. He said it checks out factually.
"I have never heard of a candidate taking it upon themselves to try to threaten and influence different stations across the state," Russell said. "It's such a veiled threat, saying, 'If you play this ad, we will hold you responsible.' Coming from a sitting senator, that was kind of creepy, I thought."
McKeever, in an interview with The Associated Press, refused to say what steps, if any, the campaign might take if stations aired the ad. He also wouldn't say if the campaign was considering any action against Tea Party Express.
Russell said that while stations in the past have questioned statements in ads or asked for documentation, none have rejected Tea Party Express ads "and I doubt they will."
This is the latest in an ongoing dispute between the group and Murkowski.
Tea Party Express reported spending more than $550,000 during the primary in support of Miller, who favors limiting the powers of the federal government to those outlined in the Constitution and giving greater control to the states.
Murkowski has admitted not being ready for the impact the Tea Party Express would have. In mounting her write-in campaign, she vowed to be ready this time. And she has aired an ad of her own, taking aim at the group.