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How political ads subtract; it's not the negative ads that are perverting democracy. It's the deceptive ones.

How Political Ads Subtract


A montage of filth and decay in and around what is supposed to be Boston Harbor. An announcer speaks:

"As a candidate, Michael Dukakis called Boston Harbor an open sewer. As governor he had the opportunity to do something about it but chose not to. The Environmental Protection Agency called his lack of action the most expensive public policy mistake in the history of New England. Now Boston Harbor, the dirtiest harbor in America, will cost residents $6 billion to clean. And Michael Dukakis promises to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts."

Creator: Frankenberry, Laughlin & Constable, Inc. in association with Ailes Communications, Inc.

Client: Republican National Committee For Bush-Quayle '88

Most of us remember (and are a little sick of hearing about) the images that somehow became the issues of the 1988 presidential campaign: sewage in the water, prisoners passing through turnstiles, consultants conspiring to wrap Bush in the flag. Less well known, however, are the techniques behind those ads - and how they're being applied in state and local campaigns around the country. Sure, there's been a lot of talk about the rise of "negative" political ads, which focus on an opponent's weaknesses rather than on the candidate's strengths. Campaign '88 did see a resurgence of negative advertising, but this phenomenon is the lesser evil: Negative ads, if truthful, can be just as useful to voters as truthful positive ones. The real danger comes from campaign ads that mislead. "Truth in advertising and accuracy in advertising sound like they're the same idea, but they're really not," says Jonathan Alter, a media and politics reporter for Newsweek. "The Boston Harbor ad would be a good example of that." The ad misleads both through what it says and what it shows.

According to Julian Kanter, curator of the Political Commercial Archive of the University of Oklahoma, in today's ads "the most important messages are those that are contained in the visual imagery." That imagery, he points out, "can be used to create impressions that are untrue." As Bush discovered, what consultants can accomplish in a production lab can be hard to duplicate on the campaign trail: He showed up at Boston Harbor to attack Dukakis's environmental record on a day when brillian sunshine danced on the waves and Boston, shining in the distance, looked like the Emerald City. By contrast, the commercial relied on technically "accurate" close-up shots of fouled water to amplify dramatically the political message. Through such visual tricks, campaigns duck the libel laws they would face in print advertising: Try putting into words the Boston Harbor images - or those of the Johnson campaign's famous "daisy ad," in which a girl counting petals in a field is gradually replaced by a mushroom cloud, presumably due to some rash action of Barry Goldwater - and you get the idea.

The facts of the harbor ad, all technically accurate, were also carefully selected. As Alter points out, "They neglect to mention two points that are so important that they make the ad fundamentally untruthful." Those points? That Dukakis was the first Massachusetts governor to try to clean up the harbor, and that the Reagan-Bush administration blocked his efforts. The ad gave the sense that Bush had a stronger environmental record, which, as Alter says, "was simply a deeply misleading notion to convey to the voting public."

What Ailes you?

The cost to society of such deceptions is high. Political advertising is now the principal means of communicating with voters; most campaign money goes into TV advertising, rather than into political functions that directly involve voters - organizing efforts, volunteer activities, candidate appearances. Even when misleading advertising fails to accomplish its goal - convincing viewers to vote for someone they might otherwise reject - it degrades the political process and turns voters into cynics. "[I]f fewer than half the registered voters vote, why is that?" asks Robert Spero, author of a book about deceptive political advertising. "I think they don't believe anything anyone says." Dishonest campaigns take another toll as well. They force the opposition to answer illegitimate claims, which some campaigns simply can't afford to do.

Who's responsible for these misleading ads? Sidney Galanty, the successful producer of several Democratic political campaigns and of Jane Fonda exercise videos, sounds the same note as other consultants: "The people who are causing the most problems in this country are people like me," he says. "I know how to play on people's emotions. That's what I do for a living." But blaming the consultants - as much as they'd like us to - serves only to divert us from the ral culprits. Though convenient, its absurd that Roger Ailes takes the heat for commercials approved by the candidates who employ him. But given the effectiveness of today's techniques, even a candidate who'd rather not use misleading ads feels that he can't risk taking the high road. The range of misleading spots - from Johnson's vaporized girl to Bush's stinking harbor to ads plugging or slamming local candidates across the country - demonstrates that deception is the inevitable result of a system that combines ambition with high technology and low accountability. To clean up the airwaves, and by extension the electoral process, we have to put an end to the Madison Avenue political commercial.

Compare political advertising to product advertising and you get an idea of how far we have to go. "There are federal rules and guidelines as to what you can do in product advertising, and you're subject to lawsuits," says one consultant. "So you know it's very dangerous to fool around with it. That's not true in politics." No one's fooling around more than Californians. Two recent referendums demonstrate the extent to which clever consultants can twist facts and images to represent their clients' interests by misrepresenting their records and goals

Through a new 25-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes, California's Proposition 99, sponsored by the Coalition for a Healthy California, aimed to raise an estimated $600 million a year to fund hospital care for the poor, medical research of tobacco-related diseases, and an antismoking campaign aimed particularly at the young. To tobacco companies, the proposed tax hike was a nightmare. The proposition would cut consumption into cigarettes by making the product much more expensive and by making the cigarette industry pay for an advertising campaign against itself, a provision it felt added insult to injury.

In the spring of 1988, the Coalition for a Healthy California conducted a poll to test support for a cigarette tax. When the terms were explained, a large majority said it would be likely to support the proposal. Only when a series of unfavorable (and misleading) hypotheticals was added to the polling questions did support drop off substantially. Pollsters call these slanted queries "push" questions. They gauge the strength of support and indicate where a clever opponent is most likely to stick in the knife. Of voters polled, 58 percent said they would be less likely to vote for Prop 99 if special interests, particularly doctors and health-care providers, were to benefit from it. Forty-nine percent said they would be less likely to vote yes if large cigarette tax increases in other states had led to crimes including smuggling, given that the measure provided no money for law enforcement.

Said Galanty, who made the Yes On 99 TV ads, took one look at the negative data and knew what to expect from the tobacco industry. "When you do polling, you say, `Okay, I'm the opponent, what do I do? How do I attack the initiative and how do I win?'" With the issue of smoking, "there's death involved, it's very emotional." The tobacco industry needed an issue that was as emotional as cancer. According to Galanty, fear of crime and resentment toward doctors were the obvious levers.

Both sides' polling showed that voters would approve the initiative if they understood it. The tobacco companies were left with the following choice: They could run an honest campaign and lose, or ....

"Medical School"

A blond, "middle-class" woman appears on the screen and begins to speak with a hint of indignation: "If you went to medical school, you'll probably love Proposition 99, but if you didn't, make sure you don't get fooled. You see, 99 directs that hundreds of millions of our tax dollars will end up in the hands of doctors in the medical industry. And guess what? They sponsored Prop 99. Prop 99 is simply a smokescreen. It raises taxes and doctors get richer. Vote no on Proposition 99. Doctors are already rich enough.

Creator: Ailes Communications, Inc.

Client: Californians Against Unfair Tax Increases

Jeff Raimundo, a political consultant, was the communications director representing the tobacco industry in the No On 99 campaign. Asked if the campaign was trying to blur the distinction between private physicians and the public health care system, Raimundo explained that their original polling showed that "there was no single issue that we could win on." As a result, "we were trying to not so much blur the issues; we were just trying to use every single argument we had." These arguments weren't always "consistent," he admits, but "it's just that they were the only arguments we had." The tobacco companies had to distill an accurate, if deceptive, means of defining the proposition. That's why the blond woman in the medical school ad happens not to mention that the tax she's criticizing is a tobacco tax.

Besides asserting the unfairness of taxes, the tobacco industry also implied that a 25-cent cigarette tax hike could kill children.

"More Guns"

A rugged-looking man walks up to a van with its side doors open. "California Police Officer 19 years," says a subtitle. Crates inside the van overflow with handguns. The man looks into the camera. "How much money could a street gang make from smuggling cigarettes? With a van like this a gang could make enough money to buy 185 handguns. Every week. In the past year gangs have killed over 200 people, many of them innocent children."

The visual then changes. Now we see a jungle gym with children climbing on it. As the man talks, kids disappear and are replaced by white silhouettes.

"More guns might not cause more murders, but is it worth taking the chance that even one more innocent person may be killed? Proposition 99 would create major crime. California doesn't need any more crime. Vote no on Proposition 99."

Creator: Ailes Communications, Inc.

Client: Californians Against Unfair Tax Increases

The ad might seem hyperbolic in print, but according to polling data, it played well on television. "Apparently, the 40 percentage points worth of voters that were moved by it didn't see it as overkill," Raimundo says. In other words, the voters believed it, so it must be true. Can Raimundo point to any tobacco-related murders? "I can't say that that has happened," he admits. "I don't think anyone can say it hasn't happened either." The Surgeon General's office could give Raimundo a few examples: According to its figures, cigarettes killed more than 350,000 Americans in the past year.

Though political ads are usually based on some accurate details, the only "facts" that really matter to consultants are the opinions of the voters. As Raimundo defends the "More Guns" commercial, one realizes he is not addressing the ad's candor, but instead is explaining why people fell for it. The distinction between what is true and what is believable gradually blurs.

"Number one is the history of major tax increases in the East has in fact driven [smuggling]," Raimundo says. "The second was that statistically the ads were accurate. If you smuggled a truckload of cigarettes into California, the savings on the sales tax you would not have to pay would be a fixed amount of money. I mean you can calculate that on an adding machine. Doing that creates a certain amount of money, and money can buy guns. That's the second thing, and you have to take all three of them together, otherwise it doesn't make sense.

"The third point is that the people who ran the tobacco crime in the East were organized criminals. In California, organized crime shows up in the form of street gangs." And everyone had heard about the gang warfare in the streets of Los Angeles. "So there was again a credibility to that side of the ledger. People in Los Angeles believed, in fact, gangs were killing kids. So we put the three of them together, we believe logically and rationally, into a credible and provocative consequence of what would happen with the tobacco tax increase."

To live and lie in L.A.

Although many voters had a sense that the cigarette industry's claims were not true, debating the issues head-on would have been a disaster for the Yes On 99 campaign. In fact, a dry, forensic response was exactly what Roger Ailes wanted. "They had hoped to drag us into the arguments that they were putting forth," Galanty says. "But there's no way to answer `Will there be smuggling?' It's like `Have you stopped beating your wife?'" If you answer, he explains, you wind up magnifying the opponent's points and lending them credibility.


A dramatic chord sets the mood. A giant tractor-trailer sits askew in an industrial part of town. Lights flash. It is the aftermath of a major bust. The same rugged man from the More Guns ad swaggers toward the camera.

"I'm an undercover cop," he says. "I risk my life every day out here. But if Proposition 99 passes I can spend my time chasing cigarette smugglers. Prop 99 would make California cigarettes more expensive, so one load of illegal out-of-state cigarettes could avoid nearly $200,000 in taxes. And criminals make all the profit. 99 is the first initiative ever that would actually create major crime. I shouldn't be chasing these," he says, indicating the tractor-trailer. "I should be making our streets safer. Vote no on 99."

Creator: Ailes Communications, Inc.

Client: Californians Against Unfair Tax Increases

According to Raimundo, "Campaign advertising doesn't work if it's not credible. It will blow up in your face." Unfortunately for the No On 99 campaign, the Undercover commercial turned out not to be credible. It was a risky ad - after all, it averages one deception every 7.5 seconds. Moreover, it gave Yes On 99 what it needed: a symbol that would resonate with the voters.

The man in the ad is Jack Hoar, and he really is a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. He is also a part-time actor. Before the No On 99 campaign, the high point of Hoar's dramatic career had been his portrayal of a vicious cop-killer in the movie To Live and Die in L.A.. Cast as Willem Dafoe's henchman, Hoar blows away two Secret Service agents investigating his boss's counterfeiting operation. After the first killing, Hoar, a chaw wedged in his mouth, spits a brown stream of tobacco juice at the slain officer.

It was the cigarette industry's bad luck that a member of the Yes On 99 campaign vaguely remembered Hoar's earlier performance. After renting the videotape and confirming their suspicion, Yes On 99 staffers checked Hoar's police credentials. At the time, Hoar was working a desk job.

Armed with these facts, the Coalition for a Healthy California began a "free-media" blitz. In well-orchestrated press conferences throughout California, the Yes On 99 campaign announced that the man in the controversial ads was not an undercover cop, but an actor. Videotapes juxtaposing the No On 99 ads with Hoar's performance in To Live and Die in L.A. were distributed to local TV stations, some of which ran the footage unedited.

Despite its support from newspaper editorialists and major law enforcement officials, the Yes On 99 campaign attributes its success largely to Jack Hoar. "[S]upport was diminishing until that allegation came out that he was not what he said he was," says Maureen Marr, Yes On 99s deputy director. "There was nothing they could do after that that ever had an effect on the voters." But the basis of this well-deserved backlash was not completely correct. Jack Hoar is a cop and maintains that he has done undercover work for the LAPD.

"What the other side did was basically lie," Raimundo says. "Because [Hoar] had a desk assignment at the time they bothered to make the phone call, they said that therefore he wasn't an undercover cop. And because he happened to play a bit part, he was therefore an actor, which is absurd." On the other hand, Prop 99 wasn't sponsored by greedy doctors trying to enrich themselves, and large-scale cigarette smuggling leading to the murder of school children is a public relations fantasy.

That's the problem with political ads on television. Deceptive tactics tend to propagate; one side lowers the standards of debate, and the opposition feels entitled or compelled to do the same; the medium itself encourages the low blow.

The name game

Will Rogers State Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Southern California. The Pacific Coast Highway and cliffs of soft, crumbling earth separate it from the Pacific Palisades, an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. A patch of land at the base of those cliffs, owned by Occidental Petroleum Corporation, became the object of intense controversy 20 years ago when the company announced plans to drill for oil there.

The battle between Occidental and No Oil, Inc., a Palisades neighborhood association formed to oppose the oil company, culminated in 1988. After losing in court and in a bid before the Los Angeles City Council, No Oil decided to take its case directly to the people. It formed a campaign committee with a group called Citizens for a Livable Los Angeles and put a measure on the 1988 Los Angeles ballot, Proposition O, which would stop Occidental from drilling on its coastal property. Occidental opposed Prop O by running an alternative initiative, Proposition P, which seemed to have a positive ecological point of its own.

The O vs. P dispute was a tough call. Occidental acquired the ocean-view property - in a land swap with the City of Los Angeles - with the express intent of drilling there, and the company tried hard to appease local opponents. Furthermore, the project would produce millions of dollars in tax revenue for Los Angeles. The argument of No Oil came down to this: No matter what assurances Occidental gave, it could not guarantee the safety of Will Rogers State Beach. Both arguments had merit. Unfortunately, the merits were to have little to do with the campaign.

Occidental's first move was to invent a name for its campaign committee. If there is anything funny about the California initiative phenomenon, it is the inevitable attempt by every campaign to create a benevolent-sounding committee name. Occidental took this ploy one step further, calling its campaign organization the "Los Angeles Public and Coastal Protection Committee." William Robertson, secretary and treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, was a member of the committee. He is not defensive about Occidental's choosing a name that made it appear to oppose its actual goals. "I think practically all measures mislead the voters," Robertson says. "That's the nature of the game."

Argument by equivocation - trading on the ambiguity of a concept - is one of the oldest tricks in the confidence game. Occidental put it to good use. The ambiguous concept here was "coastal oil drilling," which can mean either drilling on land near water or drilling in water near land. Occidental wrote its initiative to oppose the latter and to allow the former. A subsidiary provision added to Prop P called on the civic leaders of Los Angeles to use their "best efforts" to oppose oil drilling in Santa Monica Bay.

True, the voters of Los Angeles have no jurisdiction over Santa Monica Bay (it is controlled by the state and federal governments), but that didn't matter. Occidental would later argue in court that P's language against coastal drilling was a valid "policy statement" even if it lacked the power to compel. This argument prevailed in court.

But Occidental wasn't finished. "Then they turned around," says Roger Diamond, the lawyer who headed No Oil, Inc., "and pointed out that our measure, O, said nothing about drilling in the bay." Occidental produced television commercials suggesting that the real purpose of Prop O was to allow drilling. The ads said that O was a loophole so big you could drive a truck through it, a point that was illustrated with a logo. The logo featured an oil truck driving through the letter "O."

Occidental's transformation into an environmental group was almost complete. The only thing left was to make sure the name Occidental Petroleum was not included in the Prop P ads. Voters might be gullible, but not gullible enough to believe an oil company was against drilling for oil.

So it was that the Los Angeles Public and Coastal Protection Committee began its campaign push with television, radio, newspaper, direct-mail, and yardsign advertising, none of which mentioned Occidental Petroleum. California law requires a committee sponsor to identify itself only if it contributes "all or nearly all" of a committee's funds. Although Occidental was the sole contributor to the committee for several months, as the election neared a small percentage of revenue came in from other sources.

In court, Occidental argued that the company and its officers and directors had contributed only 92 percent of the committee's revenue - i.e., less than "all." Hence, they contended the "nearly all" provision governed. But, said Occidental, this provision was too vague to be applied constitutionally. What exactly did "nearly all" mean? Ninety-nine percent? Ninety-eight percent?

"The fact is, Your Honor," Occidental's lead counsel said, "we are dealing with serious constitutional rights in this case." Forcing Occidental to reveal its identity meant "its right to free speech is in doubt, its first amendment rights are being challenged."

The court didn't buy it. Less than five weeks before the election, Occidental was ordered to identify itself as the sponsor of the Los Angeles Public and Coastal Protection Committee in all of its electronic and printed ads, as well as in an amended statement of organization with the State of California. Occidental's disinformation campaign, however, had already done its work.

"When I really became depressed," Diamond says, "was a day or two before the election. We were calling people [from] a phone bank out in my office, and people were saying they were against oil drilling and that's why they were going to vote against O. Because they were against oil drilling."

But in the well-to-do Westside of Los Angeles, which embraces the Pacific Palisades, word was out about Occidental's hoax and voter turnout was heavy - with the result that O passed and P was defeated. Misunderstanding was still evident in the final number though, which suggested that of the majority who realized in time what Prop P was about, many were still misled as to the goal of Prop O. They though it, too, was a pro-oil drilling initiative - or weren't quite sure - just as Occidental hoped.

The antidrilling coalition attributes its victory largely to the acuity of the press. Soon after the campaign began, but well before Occidental was ordered to reveal its participation, the press branded Prop P as Occidental's initiative. This helps explain the heavy negative vote against both propositions: Showing the public that Occidental was behind Prop P was much easier than reversing the image Occidental had created about Prop O. That would have entailed close analysis of campaign advertising and the facts underlying it. This is a responsibility most of the press seems unwilling to accept.

Calling a spade a card

Too often, reporters don't look past an ad's facts to tackle the larger question of its meaning. "A narrow definition of a journalist's role," says Newsweek's Alter, "would be to say, `Well we can't go any further than just pointing out the inaccuracies; it's too subjective for us to point out the basic untruthfulness.'" A journalist who sees his role in this limited way is neutralized by a clever political consultant. If the "facts" can be defended he must either keep his mouth shut or balance criticism of one candidate with equal criticism about the other. Alter calls this latter technique "phony objectivity," by which "if you say Bush is a mudslinger then you have to say that Dukakis is a mudslinger. That sounds more fair, but it's really less fair. It's less truthful."

Another source of reporters' timidity is an intrinsic tension of journalism: Reporters and their sources are at one another's mercy. There is an ever-present fear among reporters and news organizations that if they do their jobs too well, the flow of information may be cut off. One symptom of this anxiety was the distortion of language in reporting on the '88 campaign. Commercials that pandered to bigotry and misstated an opponent's record were labeled "cynical," rather than "racist" and "deceptive." The codeword "negative" diplomatically stood in for "dishonest," "misleading," "fraudulent," and "cruel." A bland, ersatz vocabulary saved the press from saying the hard things it should have said.

During the campaign, even editorial writers bent over backwards to appear "objective." Consider these excerpts from "The Dirty Campaign," a Los Angeles Times editorial that appeared two weeks before the general election:

Some [voter indifference] is due to the two relatively colorless personalities. A lot more has to do with the deplorable and even contemptible quality of their campaigns. This has been without a doubt the nastiest and most cynical contest for the White House in recent memory .... Nearly two-thirds of the public, so a recent Gallup poll found, considers this year's campaign to be `more negative' than any in the past. Both sides are blamed in about equal proportion. The cynicism behind these negative strategies derives from the obvious calculation that voters will be swayed by misrepresentations and lies because they are too stupid or uncaring to know any better.

Discussing the campaign in the abstract, the Los Angeles Times is willing to vent its rage. But that changes when it's time to get down to brass tacks, to say precisely who's responsible for what. Rather than risk apportioning blame itself, the newspaper resorts to polling figures to divvy up responsibility for the "dirty campaign." Telling the public what the public thinks is a lot safer than telling the public what the editors think. After all, it's "objective," "scientific" - and noncontroversial. Discussion of the campaign is transformed into discussion of perceptions about the campaign.

That Times editorial later mentions "what some see as a primitive appeal to racism by the Bush camp" - presumably a reference to the Willie Horton/ furlough theme. But the editors are careful not to accuse - they merely relate. Why? Did the editors not think the Willie Horton ad, one of the most deceptive political spots ever created, was good support for their earlier tirade against the candidates? If it wasn't, then what is?

The editorial's charges against Dukakis are not even supported with a murky reference to someone else's opinion. What did Dukakis do that was "nasty," "deplorable," "contemptible," and "cynical"? The Times doesn't say. Still, to maintain their "objectivity," the editors find it necessary to even up the criticism: "[W]e have seen a campaign so devoid of serious debate and discussion," the editors write, "as to be an insult not just to the electorate but to the whole democratic process as well." Phony objectivity is an insult to the intelligent reader, and it actually rewards deceptive campaign tactics. A candidate who misrepresents himself or his opponent to steal votes can count on the media to obscure what really happened through its fondness for quoting offsetting opinions no matter what the merits of the case.

Even so, the media can't be held solely responsible for countering deceptive political advertising. Making an idea stick in the public mind takes repetition, and this gives campaign ads the upper hand. A deceptive spot may run dozens of times in a given market, but "you can only air your analysis of a particular commercial one time," says Professor Kanter. For that reason, the candidate on the receiving end of a deceptive attack ad is primarily responsible for setting the record straight. At this, Michael Dukakis failed miserably.

Dr. Pepper for president

Just leaving the problem to the candidates and the press won't do. The marketplace of ideas, like that of goods and services, needs regulation to work fairly. It seems odd that our society imposes tougher restrictions on the advertising claims made for soda pop and chewing gum than on the claims of people vying for control of the nuclear button. Robert Spero illustrated this odd dichotomy by analyzing political ads according to the standards applied to product commercials. It is a revealing exercise. Network broadcast-practices departments reject product commercials for many reasons, just a few of which would be enough to bar every political ad discussed in this article:

Claims lack substantiation. This criterion alone would weed out most. Competitors not fairly identified or represented. This test would have prevented Occidental Petroleum's role reversal. Competitors unfairly attacked. A good way to have blocked the cigarette industry's ad hominem attacks against the sponsors of Prop 99. Claims or representations have the capacity to deceive or mislead. The Harbor ad would have failed this test. Perpetuates a damaging stereotype. Willie Horton.

Furthermore, unlike political advertisers, product advertisers must reckon with several deterrent forces - such as consumer and competitor lawsuits and review by the FTC and the Better Business Bureaus - even before submitting ads for broadcaster approval.

Still, considering the amount of misleading information that somehow sneaks past all the stages of review and into product ads, it's clear that the current system hasn't eradicated deception in political commercials. Indeed, the Communications Act does not protect ballot-initiative commercials from broadcaster censorship, and as the two California campaigns discussed above demonstrate, the broadcasters haven't exactly put an end to deception. In fact, because broadcaster regulation has proven insufficient, Proposition 105 passed on California's 1988 ballot. It requires spoken disclosure in advertisements of the industry behind an initiative, of the largest contributor, and of whether the majority of contributions are corporate or union or from out of state.

Most fixes to the problem of deceptive political advertising face a formidable obstacle - the First Amendment. Paid candidate (as contrasted with initiative) advertisements are treated by law as "political speech," and therefore receive full protection. Whether democracy benefits by this arrangement is a good question. In the words of James Albert, a professor of law at Drake University who has written about legal remedies to deceptive campaign advertising, politicians "assert a protection that the Framers envisioned for political speech in the context of commercials that are more like the sale of dog food." Most political ads are now so removed from the ideal of political debate, and so like product advertising in their manipulation of the viewer with imagery, theatrics, and innuendo, that there is no longer a good case for treating them preferentially. Some recent attempts to restricts advertising shenanigans have been based on this argument.

Talking heads

In 1981 Democratic contenders in an Illinois township traditionally controlled by Republicans formed a group called the Representation For Every Person Party. Their advertising slogan was "Vote REP April 7." A U.S. district court judge imposed a prior restraint on the advertising material, saying that the ads were "little different from the commercial (rather than political) false advertising held unprotected." Though the Democrats said their ads were protected by the First Amendment, in ruling against them, the court cited countervailing interests - such as "the integrity of the electoral process."

The vulnerability of political ads to government sanction is further demonstrated by little-known "tell-a-lie-lose-your-job" laws recently adopted by several states. The laws are designed to take the profit out of dishonest campaign advertising. California's constitution, for instance, was amended in 1984 with a provision that can be used to strip a politician of office if he makes deceptive claims about an opponent during the election and a jury finds those claims to have been a major cause of victory. California's law applies to all local, state, and federal offices except the presidency. Ed McGovern, assistant to San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who sponsored the amendment, says free speech doesn't enter into the issue. "We're not denying you the right to say anything," he points out, "we just want it to be truthful."

That same principle supports the most promising political advertising reform of the several legislative proposals offered since the 1988 election. A bipartisan group of senators is cosponsoring a bill to increase candidate accountability. The proposed law, currently in the communications subcommittee of the Senate's Commerce Committee, would require a candidate to do the talking in any ad that discussed an opponent. Stations that failed to enforce the rule would have to give the rival free response time.

That's good start, but does it go far enough? A better idea would be to require that all political ads depict the candidate, and only the candidate, speaking to the viewers. No more uplifting music and heartwarming scenes of Americana, no more inflammatory sequences of prison gates or escaped rapists. Candidates would have to present their messages in person, unaided by television wizardry. This reform's goal is twofold: to make it harder to influence voters without informing them, and to make candidates accountable for everything they say, not just for what they say about opponents.

Undoubtedly, some will object that this proposal unjustifiably restricts the First Amendment, but ultimately the criticism sounds hollow. It strains the mind to imagine a campaign process more degrading and useless than the current one. Could the situation possibly get worse if candidates were forced to speak? Speech, after all, is what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. Of course, such a requirement would not level the playing field completely: The great communicators - the Ronald Reagans and the FDRs - have the advantage in any forum. As one wry media commentator said recently. "Someday we might have an actor as president." On the other hand, limiting political ads this way would help ensure that voters' intuitions about a candidate have more to do with reality than with the airbrushed fantasies of political consultants.
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Author:Hinerfeld, Daniel Slocum
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1990
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