Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Straying On Message

A news item first came to my attention during my drive home, which is to say it was reported on my local NPR station, KCUR. It seems that the Kansas City Star called for the campaign staff of Senator Jim Talent, who is in a close race for reelection against State Auditor Claire McCaskill, to withdraw certain television ads. It seems the ads took certain statements published in the Star and used them as if they were either editorial or reported statements of the Star. Reportedly, a similar misuse was made of an editorial statement from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Now, I had already seen the ads, and had made the assumption that this was in fact the case. Granted, I personally lean away from the positions of Senator Talent, something known to at least one member of his staff (an Episcopalian who is kind enough to receive emails when I want to express an opinion on an issue); but that wasn’t what made me suspicious of the ads. It was the lack of specific attributions. Earlier ads from the Talent campaign that quoted statements that were actual editorial or reported content from the paper had cited the specific date on which the statement was published. The new ads did not. They used the paper’s logo, but didn’t actually say when the alleged statements were published. (They also said, as required by law, that he had approved the ads – something I think he was ill-advised to do, but that, I suppose, remains to be seen.)

I was also inclined to distrust ads solely because they were political ads. I have come to distrust political ads in general. Sure, I think it’s better when there are specific citations. I note when a candidate makes statements of his or her own record. But I know that the latter are always a matter of putting one’s best foot forward.

So, I have come to see some things I’m seriously tired of, things that are objectionable enough any time, but are pandemic during the election season (which is, I suppose, all but the first six months after the election).

First, I have become tired of officials who “stay on message.” We don’t watch many political/talking head programs on television. (We do sometimes watch Meet the Press on NBC. We watch it specifically for Tim Russert’s technique of confronting guests with their own words.) I’ve largely given up on watching political debates on television. One reason is the determination of some politicians to “stay on message” – whether it answers the question or not. I have come to believe that those folks committed to staying on message, and those who advise them to do so, think we’re stupid. They think we’re so stupid that we won’t notice that the given response didn’t answer the question. They think we’re so stupid that we’re not capable of understanding thoughtful, nuanced response. They think we’re so stupid that we’ll somehow believe that repeated repetition makes true that which is false. (Perhaps I should be less upset about that. All too often it seems to work.) Why should I trust someone who thinks I’m stupid?

Second, I’ve become tired of negative ads, and especially of ad hominem attacks. The Talent ads descend to that, because the statements in question misused from the Star don’t actually speak to Claire McCaskill’s record in public office. Now, the campaign has also produced some ads that questioned whether the McCaskill’s record indicates she would be the best senator. I didn’t find them compelling, but I also didn’t think them beyond the pale. For one politician to look at another, point to an action taken, and argue that it was not the correct action may not be fun for the other, but it isn’t nasty. Even statements of malfeasance in office, if proven and therefore part of the public record, are fair game (although the politician running for election carrying that weight is blessedly rare). Is the other person actually a crook? Prove it from the public record, and it’s reasonable, if perhaps unpleasant. But personal attacks are not acceptable.

What would I rather see? I’m glad you asked. I do have some ideas.

First, I would like to limit the election season. I understand in the United Kingdom it’s limited to six weeks. I think that kind of limitation is a great idea, one that would save a great deal of energy and money. Any ads for specific candidates or specific parties for specific offices would have to fall within that time. Now, I don’t want to limit most political speech. I’d be willing to accept issue ads outside that time, as long as they didn’t advocate for or against a candidate or official – not even so much as “let [your representative here] know how you feel.” People who are so inclined already know they can do that.

Second, in those six weeks I don’t want any negative ads, even if based on an opponent’s record. Let the candidates speak of issues and platforms. I don’t want to hear them speak of or to one another.

Instead, I would like to see every candidate – every candidate – given half an hour in prime time, in a market determined by the office in question (so, a national broadcast for President, statewide for senator or governor, etc.). In that half hour the candidate could describe the situation as he or she sees it; the problems in the situation; the changes the candidate thinks should be made; and the candidate’s qualifications for making those changes. I don’t want to hear what an opponent or an opponent’s party has done wrong. I want to hear what the candidate thinks is right, and what the candidate has done in the past to suggest why I should trust this candidate to do it.

With that in place, I think we can dispense with “debates.” These media events are not debates in any real sense, and most of us know it. They are a capitulation to the “sound bite” addiction of broadcast media. They might appear to challenge candidates to think on their feet. In fact they simply become more opportunities for candidates to “stay on message,” spouting canned answers memorized over weeks of practice. They don’t educate the public, and they don’t show much education on the part of the candidates.

Now, as to political conventions: I don’t have a great problem with them. Why should I begrudge anyone participation in a party (and I don’t mean the political organization)? I do enjoy some real rhetoric on the rare occasion I hear it. I do wish they would speak during prime time when decent folk are awake enough to focus. But I’ve heard some great and moving speeches from the conventions; and if they can still provide a few they’ll be reasonably justified.

Now, there are other opinions I could share; but those are enough for one night. I would like to come to vote some year feeling like this was about platform and not about person; about serving the public, and not about winning my affection. I would like to come to vote some year with a feeling of excitement that is not undercut by relief that the media blitz will stop. I would like to come to vote some year when I wasn’t sorry I had a television or a radio or an answering machine. I would like to come to vote some year without feeling like I’ve been watching a food fight among toddlers armed with mud pies.

I will certainly vote this year. Not only is it my duty, it is my privilege; and those who don’t vote don’t have a right to complain. I will vote this year despite all that galls me in the process. But I will still hope that some year it will be better.

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