Commentary: Doing away with political hatchet job ads

The Charlotte ObserverFebruary 26, 2012 

It's a classic hatchet job of a political ad, and it's powerful.

"Has President Lincoln given up?" a voiceover intones. "At a speech in Pennsylvania he even refused to dedicate a battlefield still fresh with the blood of tens of thousands of union soldiers."

Grainy footage portrays Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address: "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground."

The ominous voiceover sneers: "Lincoln believes that America will perish from the earth. ... And that our soldiers have died in vain." Grainy clip of Lincoln saying, "Perish from the earth" and "Died in vain," then remastered: "In vain, in vain, in vain, in vain!"

The ad closes, with menacing music in the background: "Abraham Lincoln: Wrong on the war, wrong for the Union."

It's a spoof, of course, one of several anti-Lincoln ads created by professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson and others at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Jamieson is on a quest to banish deceptive political advertising in this blockbuster election year. Her efforts, while perhaps quixotic, could not be more fitting or better timed.

Aside from spillover from South Carolina's Republican primary last month, North Carolinians haven't been subjected to much political advertising this year. But we should brace for the looming bombardment. Much of it will be attack ads, and maybe that's merely annoying. But many of the ads will be flat-out false, and funded by shadowy groups backed by unidentified billionaires.

Jamieson is like the lone protester who halted tanks rolling near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Candidates, super PACs and affiliated groups will spend hundreds of millions of dollars this election year, steamrolling the truth. The money largely will come from extremely wealthy special interests who, thanks to weak disclosure laws, will often remain anonymous.

Jamieson is banking on voters refusing to tolerate it. She seeks to open their eyes to the tactics the political pros use: taking words out of context as with Lincoln's moving Gettysburg Address, for example, or dredging up a candidate's statement from decades ago, or guilt by association, or any number of other techniques. All of that has been done already in this still-young presidential campaign.

Jamieson hopes the public will demand that local TV stations refuse to run political ads that are demonstrably false. Stations are legally required to run ads from candidates for federal office. But they can turn away those from supposedly independent groups such as super PACs. Pressure from the viewing public, Jamieson reasons, could goad the stations into insisting that ads be truthful.

There's a lot of gray in what's true and what isn't. TV stations couldn't be expected to police that. But they could decline ads that include blatant falsehoods, and there are many of those.

Negative and misleading political advertising is not new, nor is the phenomenon that voters in the television - and now YouTube - age are influenced more by flash than substance. That trend famously began in 1960, when many viewers of the first televised presidential debate thought John Kennedy won while those who listened to it on the radio thought Richard Nixon won.

In today's image-driven, media-saturated environment, some of America's best presidents would hardly stand a chance. The gangly, homely, mumbling Lincoln would have had a hard time. The wheelchair-bound Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have little hope. Thomas Jefferson's fathering of children with slave Sally Hemings would have been leaked to Fox News and he'd be done. A less notable president, William Howard Taft, probably wouldn't get elected today because of his obesity.

The difference now is the insane amount of money shaping - or tearing down - the candidates' images. On Monday, super PACs will reveal how many tens of millions they have already spent. Reports on Friday said casino owner Sheldon Adelson will soon put another $10 million into a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.

That's a lot for voters to overcome. Especially if we're OK with it, as long as it's coming from our guy.

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