Guest Columns

HARBER: SILENCE IS GOLDEN

Rallying against negative political ads is a cause we should all heartily support

By Aaron Harber
GUEST COLUMNIST

Waking up on Wednesday, November 3rd — with just 2½ hours of sleep after watching election returns with the Democrats and then the Republicans at their respective Election Night headquarter parties in Denver — I felt something was missing as I turned on the radio and then the television.

What was that sound? No, it wasn’t a sound I heard that caught my attention; rather, it was the absence of sound which was so soothing. Not a single political advertisement was assaulting me! Who would have thought the absence of something could be such a blessing?

Most people — whether political experts or members of the general public — agreed this year’s political ads, as a group, were the worst ever. With the overwhelming percentage being negative, it was easy to become soured on both the attackers and the attackees.

The problem is attack ads work — we pay more attention to them and we remember more about the messages they convey than positive ads. They also are intentionally deployed to demotivate certain groups of voters so those people will be less likely to support a candidate or even to cast their votes.

Changing this dynamic is difficult because, with the First Amendment on their side, those who sponsor advertisements which are misleading or even grossly dishonest know they have constitutional protection. Courtesy, politeness, and mutual respect do not enter the political equation. Watchwords such as “All’s fair in love, war, and politics,” “You only govern if you win” and “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser” are the dominant operating philosophies of campaign strategists.

Because political campaign managers know we remember negative ad content at a much higher rate than positive content, the ads will only get worse unless we take action against them. Otherwise the preponderance of political ads in a tight race (75 percent or more) will continue to be negative and unscrupulous. To change this, several actions must be undertaken in concert.

The Press needs to play a greater role serving as fact-checking sources and highlighting ads with false or distorted claims. Some organizations make tepid efforts, at best, to take on this challenge but usually are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ads. The result is they may analyze only one-tenth of the ads to which voters are exposed.

Local news sources should take advantage of some of the national fact-checking efforts and integrate those findings into their own news reports. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and others provide excellent sources of information which can be the starting point for local news sources verifying facts.

Burying objective analyses of ads or keeping them too concise lessens the effectiveness of any watchdog effort. The analyses should be front and center. Newspapers should make their stories the front page news of a section or even of the entire paper. Television stations, for example, when finding an egregiously erroneous advertisement should (1) offer free response time to the unfairly attacked party, (2) run a “Fact Check” disclaimer, (3) have a serious discussion of the ad by a bipartisan panel, and/or (4) have the courage to pull the ad (which one or more Colorado television stations did during this election cycle).

It is easy for a broadcaster to say, “It’s a free country and candidates can say whatever they want. If a candidate or committee’s advertisement distorts the truth, the opposition is free to buy an advertisement to counter the false ad with a response.” The line between free speech and false advertising will almost always be drawn in favor of free speech but forcing a candidate or committee to spend money to correct a falsehood is an unfair burden if the person or entity being attacked does not have the resources to respond.

Just because candidates and campaigns have the right to lie about those they oppose does not mean that kind of behavior should be tolerated. It is time to more openly discuss this bad behavior rather than accept it as a fait accompli.

Television and radio stations hold a broadcast license granted to them by the federal government on behalf of the people of the United States. They have an obligation to provide a public service to their communities. Perhaps it is time for these stations to reflect on how they could better serve America with their segment of the public airwaves.

It is time to openly consider the inherent conflict of interest between the public service responsibilities of radio and television stations and their corporate mission to maximize advertising revenue. After all, it is difficult or even undesirable, from a business perspective, to be responsible for policing your customers — especially when they are paying you billions of dollars every two years.

Independent nonpartisan initiatives (such as the 2006 Truth In Political Advertising Project in Colorado — www.TIPAP.org) need to be supported and encouraged to start early in every election cycle. These entities have proven they can serve as a widely-accepted governor on the behavior of candidates and campaign committees on both a local and national scale, especially if the Press highlights their findings. In the case of the TIPAP, its effect was lauded by people ranging from Bill Armstrong to Bill Clinton.

A large-scale effort by an organization such as the TIPA Project is needed to address the sheer volume of political ads so there can be an immediate (within 24 hours and, ideally, same-day) response to every false ad.

Truly nonpartisan efforts such as the TIPA Project need to be made a permanent fixture on the political landscape — with universities and colleges involved with news operations on an ongoing basis. Such programs then could serve as a stable source of evaluations for news outlets — ranging from newspapers to bloggers to the television and radio stations making tough decisions about how to deal with exceptionally unfair ads.

Voters need to learn enough about the candidates and issues so negative advertising is blunted by a foundation built on facts. Such a foundation will make negative advertising less effective and force candidates and campaigns to be more substantive. Voters need to consider ways to electorally punish candidates and their supporters who unfairly malign opponents.

At the same time, voters need to be more forgiving. If a candidate made a mistake one, two or three decades ago and paid his or her debt to society, perhaps we should be more willing to accept he or she has changed or, at the minimum, met his or her obligations. We need to be more willing to give second chances and be thoughtful about how relevant and important, if at all, a past transgression might be. If voters were more forgiving, the effectiveness of many attack ads could be blunted. If attack ads were to become less effective, candidates and campaigns would be forced to focus more on the issues and be more substantive.

Unless we take action now, the withering assault of the upcoming 2012 election cycle will make us pine for the “good ol’ days” of the 2010 campaign.

Aaron Harber hosts “The Aaron Harber Show” on Ch. 3 KCDO-TV (K3 Colorado) on Sundays at 8 p.m. and on COMCAST Entertainment Television on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. He also hosted “Colorado Election 2010” (www.Colorado2010.com)