Political ads, and especially those short, emotional TV attack spots, came in for some thorough scrutiny in this year's campaign. It was a campaign that overall, if far from the lowest even in recent memory for innuendo and half-truth, also set no standard of objectivity.
Many papers and a few television stations set up "truth squads" or "truth boxes" to help the voter trying to cope with a bombardment of appeals and charges. It's an idea whose time has come.Candidate debates, counter-ads and letters to the editor provide some balance. But an independent appraisal carries a lot more weight than the self-serving statements of the candidates themselves.
- ONE OF THE PAPERS that regularly critiqued political ads, and not just the negative ads, was the New York Times. In covering the major races across the nation it pictured TV ads from both parties side by side, printed the scripts, noted who the ad producers were and then provided an independent assessment of their accuracy.
In an analysis of an ad in which Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida said he had "cut waste and saved taxpayers a billion dollars," the Times responded, "The governor notes that he saved taxpayers $1 billion . . . but the governor also approved $3.8 billion in tax increases and the state budget grew by 68 percent." Of the ad in which his opponent, Lawton Chiles, pledged to control growth, hold down taxes and protect the environment, the Times said, "He is vague about the changes he may make to to strengthen protection of the environment or to restrain growth."
- THE DESERET NEWS made a start in this same direction when it carried a front page piece by political editor Bob Bernick Jr. under the headline, "Political ads don't always add up to whole truth." It appeared Oct. 29, just after the ads for congressional candidates Wayne Owens and Genevieve Atwood began to pop up on television.
The story made the point well that political ads often shade the truth.
However, the analysis of the ads and the rebuttals in the story came from the candidates, Atwood herself and Peter Billings Jr., the Democratic state chairman, answering for Owens.
The Tribune did the same thing more obliquely in the form of straight news stories, rather than analysis, about the complaints of the Owens camp about the Atwood ads and the Atwood answer.
Neither the News nor Tribune approach was as forceful and useful as the political editors' own analysis might have been. The News approach was a good start, however, and one that might well be enlarged in future elections.
- CHANNEL 2'S LARRY WARREN compiled a package that concluded election ads have become void of issues and ideas. Rod Decker did several stories on political ads. While he did not attempt to evaluate the truth of the TV ads, and says he found nothing in the TV ads patently untrue, the day before the election he described that weekend's anti-Snow radio spot by Utahns for Ethical Government as "viciously negative."
At Channel 4, Chris Vanocur found the Owens-Atwood ads loaded with innuendo: "If you believe Wayne Owens, Atwood is against school kids, veterans and people who live in nursing homes. . . . If you believe Atwood, Owens will rip medicine out of the hands of senior citizens and do all he can to help murdering drug kingpins stay in power. . . . Atwood voted against school kids in order to get more to social services, prefers home care to nursing homes and when she voted against veterans so did all the other legislators. As for Owens, he voted to cut Medicare a few dollars a year and has worked to give drug kingpins the death sentence."
Channel 5 carried a piece by Keith McCord on the negativism of political ads on the national scene. On election eve Robert Walz reported on Utah political ads, among others the Utah County newspaper ad generally acknowledged to have played a role in Snow's defeat. Both were light on analysis, but Walz's man-in-the-street interviews found that "mudslinging is not playing well on Main Street."
- SOME CRITICS writing in the national press feel the newspaper "truth boxes" don't go far enough, saying they fail to analyze the ads for visual and aural content and spotlight instead only the literal statements. Advertising Age, for instance, cited an Ann Richards ad in the Texas gubernatorial race that used a blurry picture of her opponent, Clayton Williams, and urged viewers to "look behind the screen on Claytie TV."
One critic said that when television analyzes the ads, it should freeze the frame and have the critic step out in front of the ad so that the criticism, not the ad, is the focus - "anything to make sure your point gets across rather than the spots" themselves.
Unfortunately, the media critiques didn't come down on what the candidates didn't choose to say. I saw none that noted that the congressional campaign nationwide was significant for its almost utter absence of any stand on America's Gulf belligerence, for example. And KUTV's Warren says he saw nothing on any ad that told people why they ought to vote the candidate beyond emphasizing "Utah values," which presumably everyone is for.
- TWO CONSUMER groups are petitioning the Federal Communications commission with a novel idea. They would like a rule requiring that spots criticizing a candidate include the attacking candidate's face for at least four seconds and over at least 4 percent of the screen.
But corrective action of the media themselves is preferable to government coercion in cleaning up election ads and holding the candidates themselves accountable for them.
It might even nudge candidates and their legion of media advisers, who publicly deplore negative ads but use them anyway because they are believed effective, to take a higher road.