Sunday, October 19, 2008

Negative Political Advertising

I recently had a brief conversation with three people very dear to me on the topic of negative political advertising. When I jumped into the discussion it was already a lamentation on the negative ads. It was stated that McCain was the more negative. Someone else referred to some report they had seen that pointed out that Obama was negative in about one third of his ads. It was further noted that he was spending about three times as much as McCain on ads. I raised the question that if those reports are accurate does that mean they are both airing the same amount of negative ads.

It was interesting to me that each of us had seen the last debate, but we remembered the candidate’s responses to the question of negative ads differently. My impression was that McCain was more open than Obama about the fact that their ads were negative. The other three felt the opposite was true. I want to see that part of the debate again. My recollection is that McCain admitted both sides had been negative and proceeded to blame the negativity on Obama’s refusal to participate in town meetings with McCain. (Who knows how that relates?) Obama stated McCain’s ads were 100% negative and his were not.

This led to a question of what constitutes a negative political advertisement. The three of us each seemed to have a different definition. One position (if I understood correctly) was that any critical reference to the opponent was negative and political ads should be limited to stating the individual candidate’s political positions without reference to the other candidate. The discussion ended abruptly as I was called away. It did leave me with an inner drive to determine for myself what ads I consider to be negative.

I have concluded that negative ads lie in the ear of the listener and/or eye of the beholder. Logic suggests that any statement of disagreement is seeded with a negative assessment of one’s opponent. A hint of superiority is implied in every request for a vote; it is very hard to separate “I have a better idea” from “my opponent is not as smart as me.” This could be avoided, or at least lessened, if every election was a referendum on competing concepts rather than competing persons; but we don’t vote on the grounds of who has the best ideas. We vote on the bases of sound bites and how they intersect with our personal concerns.

On another level, political ads can be negative in tone. Emotional tones are of course highly subjective. They can appeal to innate fears and base prejudices. It is hard to avoid hints of age discrimination in the current election, not to mention abiding racism in some sectors of American society. I will let the reader interpret which candidates have knowingly or simply irresponsibly fell into this form of negativity.

As for me, I have come to realize I think of negative political advertisements in terms of truthfulness and intent. This is the threshold of negativity I find unacceptable. Thus, I consider a political advertisement to be negative if (1) its apparent intent is to slander the character or abilities of the opponent, and/or (2) it is intentionally or recklessly misleading. Conversely, I consider an ad acceptable if (1) it merely states the political position(s) of the candidate, i.e., “this is what I believe and will do,” and/or (2) it makes valid comparisons between the candidates and/or provides accurate reports on the positions and/or record of the opponent.

For example, I view the McCain ads pointing out that Obama chose to not vote for laws in Illinois that would have banned partial-birth abortions a valid and appropriate advertisement. Obama has not denied the accuracy of the report. He has instead defended his “present” vote on the grounds (1) the laws did not include exceptions to protect the life of the mother and (2) there were already laws in Illinois opposing the procedure. He is further on record as being committed to protecting Roe v. Wade. From my perspective Obama’s record is clear on this issue and it is legitimate for McCain to point this out. I cannot understand how any reasonable person can defend partial-birth abortions as ever being necessary to protect the life of the mother. Logic says to me the procedure threatens the life of the mother by delaying the completion of the birth, if only for a few moments. While I have not read the pieces of legislation nor compared them to existing laws, Obama’s defense still leaves me with the understanding he has refused to attach his name to a bill that would protect the lives of late-term babies. I have a right to know this. McCain has a responsibility to inform me of this.

On the other hand, I find the McCain ads stating Obama supported legislation to teach sex education to Kindergarten children inappropriate because they appear misleading to me. I suspect Obama is telling the truth when he states the law simply requires kindergarten age children to be taught about appropriate touch. As a pastor I do a children’s sermon every year in the sanctuary worship service addressing the same topic. Again, I have not read the law and should I be wrong and it does include lessons on birth control, I would want to know that and it would be a legitimate advertisement.

Likewise, the McCain ads stating Obama voted X number of times to not fund support for the troops is troubling. It is misleading in that those bills were knotted with conflicting provisions about ending the war. Political games were being played so that a vote against a specific bill did not indicate support for or against the troops. Should there be ads that simply state Obama opposed the war and repeatedly proposed a plan to bring the troops home on a fixed time table they would be valid. Obama’s ads state this, only as a positive. However, Obama now says his timetable is flexible. I wish McCain would play the video tape of the Democratic debates where Obama stated repeatedly the time-table should be firmly set and chastised Hillary Clinton for proposing a flexible time table. My point is that McCain has a right to reveal where Obama has been inconsistent. [By the way, I opposed the war in Iraq on religious grounds long before the first bombs were dropped. War is evil and it should be avoided if at all possible. This war could have been avoided. Unlike Obama, I also opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. The Church of God rightly teaches “nations can and should resolve their differences without going to war.”]

On Ayers, I think McCain like Hillary before him has a right to ask for full disclosure. [While it was in stump speeches and not ads, Palin’s “palling around with terrorists” was way over the line because it clearly implied Obama has some level of approval of terrorism.] On Rev. Wright, I think it was appropriate for Hillary and others to ask questions about Obama’s views on race relations and to press on how he could remain a member of that congregation. [I personally have not heard anything overly offensive from the pastor. America is accountable to God for her unjust and oppressive actions and we as a nation need frequent reminders of God’s sovereignty over us. However, I have only heard the sound bites played on TV news shows and suspect he erred in equating his political views with the Word of God.]

Having illustrated using McCain’s transgressions, as I see them, let me point out a couple of Obama’s. I personally, find his advertisements more offensive, perhaps because I now qualify for some senior-citizen discounts. Obama has skillfully slandered McCain as unfit for the Presidency by repeated use of terms like “erratic” and the ubiquitous “John McCain just doesn’t get it” and ads like those that stress McCain doesn’t use a computer or email. These ads are deceptive caricatures that present a picture of someone who is incompetent to function in modern society. These are subtle, personal attacks. If there was any verifiable evidence McCain is unstable it would be appropriate to present it. Disagreement over policy is not grounds for slander.

Finally, Obama is equally guilty with McCain in giving sound bite quotes taken out of context and thereby distorting the truth. Candidates should be held accountable for the truthfulness of their ads. It is not enough to get the facts right. The real issue is whether the content of the ads accurately reflects the positions and record of the opposing candidate.

In summation, I consider a political advertisement negative not on the bases of tone but on the bases of truthfulness and relevance. John and Barack is it too much to ask that you give us truthful statements that are relevant to the questions of national interest? I can endure a little negative emotion if it helps us get to truth. I have a strong distaste for slander even if it is salted with misleading facts.

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