Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s legal office asked television stations this week not to air advertisements attacking his auto insurance reform proposal, sparking criticism that he is trying to squelch debate about the issue.
The governor’s intervention turns up the heat in an escalating public relations war between consumer advocates and insurers critical of the governor’s plan, and other companies that have been airing pro-reform television spots for weeks.
Romney legal counsel Mark D. Nielsen wrote to WBZ-TV and WCVB-TV and called several others early this week asking them not to run the ads from the Coalition for Affordable Auto Insurance For All, a group spearheaded by two of the state’s largest auto insurers, Arbella Mutual Insurance and Commerce Insurance.
The ads feature people saying that under Romney’s assigned risk plan, insurers could reject “any driver for almost any reason,” such as living in an urban area, carrying a credit card balance, or having a teen driver in the house.
Nielsen wrote to the stations that the ad misrepresents Romney’s proposal, and that the contention that any driver can be rejected is “false and inflammatory.” Stations should not run any ad with “either deliberately misleading or demonstrably false statements,” he wrote.
“It turns out that our auto insurance system is more Soviet-style than we thought,” said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. “Not only is there excessive state control and regulation, but there’s also lies and propaganda to go along with it.”
Doug Bailey, a spokesman for the coalition, said he was “disheartened” by the governor’s actions.
“We believe that our ads would withstand anyone’s interpretation or anyone’s scrutiny for factual information,” Bailey said.
WBZ-TV, which also runs WSBK-TV, agreed on Monday afternoon to pull the ads after hearing from Nielsen, but on Tuesday decided to put them back on the air after they were reviewed by lawyers, according to General Manager Julio Marenghi, who otherwise declined to comment.
WHDH-TV pulled the ad after getting the governor’s complaint, said spokeswoman Ginny Lund. WCVB-TV, which also received the letter, had already asked for revisions to the ad before the governor’s office wrote to the station. General Manager William Fine said that the ad was held on Friday during the station’s normal vetting of issue ads.
“We had concerns long before we heard from the governor’s office,” Fine said. The coalition agreed to make some changes to the ad in order to run it.
Fox affiliate WFXT-TV has continued to run the ad during a review, said station spokeswoman Maggie Hennessey-Nees. New England Cable News general manager Philip S. Balboni said his station is also reviewing the ad, while continuing to run it.
“I respect the governor’s position. On the other hand, we are strong believers in the free marketplace of ideas,” Balboni said.
The governor’s office made the move against the ads on the same day that they were scheduled to debut throughout the state. The ads from the coalition were created in response to spots that have now been running for week from a rival group, Fairness for Good Drivers.
The ads from that organization, which is also made up of auto insurers, have also been the subject of complaints. In September, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Insurance Research filed a complaint with Insurance Commissioner Julianne M. Bowler, asking her to order the ads pulled. She refused to do so.
Deirdre Cummings, MassPIRG consumer program director, said that the governor was using his office to “bully” stations into not running the ad.
“Governor Romney is hitting consumers with a one-two punch. Not only is his auto insurance plan bad for consumers, he is also blocking their voice from being heard,” she said.
Fehrnstrom called that accusation “ridiculous.”
“When someone makes deliberately false representations about the governor, we have an obligation to correct the record,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that Romney has objected to ads in the media. Last winter, he complained about ads criticizing his position on stem cell research. One station asked for, and received, a change to that ad.