by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
December 9, 2003
HARSH TONE OF POLITICAL ADS HURTS DEMOCRACY
LOS ANGELES -- Watching the mass media cover political advertising is like watching one of those teen horror movies. Why don't the kids come out of the basement and escape from the deranged killer? Why don't newspapers do the most obvious things to protect democracy?
In the coming eleven months we will experience those carbuncles on the backside of civilization, 30 second political ads on tv. They will arrive replete with carefully vandalized portraits of opposing candidates. (The technique is simple: show your candidate in glorious color surrounded by his adoring family. Show his opponent in grainy black and white with her mouth and eyebrows subtly disfigured to provide a satanic effect.)
These ads will occasionally tell some truth, but it will be presented in such a partisan fashion as to deny the possibility that there might be another side to the story. When they do tell the truth, it will only be that teensy little corner of the truth that reflects most badly on the opponent.
Mostly, political ads will attempt to pound on what the pundits like to call wedge issues. These are the topics that are emotionally engaging without being particularly relevant to much anything else. The current wedge issues we may expect to see being flogged unmercifully are same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the future of social security.
What we will not see is a discussion of the dangers of the trade imbalance, a careful discussion of our response to the September 11 attacks or any tv ad that is in the least fair to its opponent.
Instead, we will experience oversimplification at the expense of leadership.
The use of overstatement, distortion, lying by omission, and quoting out of context are powerful tools in the hands of campaigns attempting to tear down an opponent. The typical 30 second tv spot includes a sound track that is a miracle of modern propaganda practice. It is narrated by an actor with a deep, resonant voice accented with subtle contempt. Patriotic music plays in the background along with breeze-blown American flags.
The stentorian voice will explain to us in amazed tones that Jane Smith voted to set murders free, to risk our children's lives and to insult American servicemen returning from battle. The fact that these assertions are based on stretching, distorting and torturing the opponent's actual record to the breaking point may become obvious after careful scrutiny, but most television viewers are not statehouse reporters.
Some people recognize this whole dance as a cheap exercise in political propaganda and discount much of what they see. The problem is that it generally works, and the candidate with the money to carry out his propaganda campaign with the most intensity has a sizable advantage in getting elected. The result is that we often elect not the candidate we would knowledgeably choose, but the candidate who is best able to scare voters away from his opponent. This is the essential danger of the process and why it is damaging to democracy.
The outrageous part is that the media could do a lot to put a stop to this blot on our civilization and thereby make a major contribution towards reforming the system. If, that is, the media made the least attempt to live up to their piously stated principles of honorable journalism, the situation would be much improved.
Let's consider how the media could help, starting with two examples from recent elections. A few years ago, then incumbent Congressman Steve Horn (R - Long Beach, Ca) was hit with a particularly obnoxious attack piece on the weekend before the general election. The Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a strong editorial denouncing the attack, correcting the misinformation, and repeating its endorsement of Horn, who was reelected fairly easily. A few years later, the same Press-Telegram reacted to a nasty piece put out by one of its endorsed candidates. The Press-Telegram denounced the hit piece and publicly withdrew its endorsement of the candidate, who went on to lose by a substantial margin.
The point to consider is that the Press-Telegram treated each of these hit pieces as an affront to the civilized conduct of elections. Furthermore, it was willing to put its own name on the line editorially in support of that principle. There should be little doubt that the perpetrators of these hit pieces were hurt by the consequent backlashes. It is a little disappointing that this particular newspaper did not continue and expand on this process so as to cover more election campaigns, but it deserves commendation for what was a good start at the time.
What remains disappointing is that newspapers in general have not expanded such coverage to all elections. That newspapers ought to make the conduct of campaigns a serious topic of coverage is implied by the logic of our electoral system: Newspapers pride themselves on their role as the First Amendment defenders of the right of voters to be informed as to the qualifications of candidates. The willingness of any candidate to stoop to misstatement, distortion, innuendo, racism or other electoral misdemeanors should by rights be a first tier topic for news coverage and editorial comment.
From the journalistic standpoint, it is not that difficult. All that is required is that campaign assertions be evaluated by reporters in terms of the facts - not just whether every assertion is technically true, but whether the assertions taken as a whole in any ad can be said to fairly represent the opponent's record.
The Los Angeles Times evaluates campaign materials on occasion. What we get is a summary of the ad followed by an evaluation of its content. What has been missing in such Times coverage is the willingness to take it to the next level, which is to make the appropriate editorial denunciation of any candidate who goes over the line.
What I am asking is that the print media embrace the principle that dirty politics by any candidate, friend or foe, is grounds to oppose his election. This would include misleading mailers and television spots alike.
This would entail a true paradigm shift, because it would place civilized conduct on a par with fundamental positions such as conservatism vs liberalism or party affiliation. Curiously, such an evolution in taste among serious newspapers would be effective far beyond the dreams of us small time reformers. The reason is simple. Many elections are won or lost due to the votes of independents and third party voters. They are less likely to vote anybody's straight ticket; rather, they pick and choose among candidates from all parties. For this group, the ability to rule out candidates from the list of possibles is all important. They just need to know who to rule out.
It is unfortunate that the news media protest our gutter style of political conduct yet neglect to do the most obvious (and, frankly, easy) thing to frustrate that trend. We don't see much coverage of the sort the Press Telegram created on those two occasions.
There are of course powers and influences that work against such a possibility, not the least of which is the fact that newspaper owners tend to be wealthy (and often corporate). They therefore have a financial and cultural incentive to defend the interests of the wealthy and to support the financial interests of the large media corporations. As recent experience shows, they have been willing to support the politicians who support them. In other words, they are willing to be a bit amoral when it comes to candidate endorsements.
Still, the writers and editors who produce the print media is not always entirely subservient to the whims of the wealthy, either in terms of the stories they cover or the editorials they write. We can hope.
What is required is a societal understanding that the current ad hominem style of political campaigning is damages our democracy; that it is in fact so damaging that its replacement by something more civil should be our first priority.