It's unrealistic, probably unfair and almost certainly unconstitutional but I still want political advertising banned from the airwaves and cable wires.
Political ads on TV invariably distort or subvert the truth, cheapen campaigns and candidates and debase democracy.Political advertising is the single most important element of national campaigning. Rather than maturing into a responsible and sophisticated means of communication, political specialists have gone gutter-hopping and rediscovered the power of negaive preaching.
Speaking ill of the opposition, it turns out, offers campaigns a double bonanza. First, it plants seeds among the undecided that can sprout and bear fruit in the voting booth. Second, negative ads force opponents to respond to the accusations, diverting time, attention and resources from their own campaign game plan.
Some experienced political observers take a different view. ABC's Jeff Greenfield, for example, has studied and written about the subject extensively, and he insists that political ads are less effective than media consultants and hysterical TV critics imagine.
Citizens, he says, tend to seek out and support candidates who share their values and priorities, regardless of the content of TV commercials.
I don't doubt that, if asked, people will deny being influenced by political advertising. But done well, political advertising - positive or negative - doesn't work on so conscious a level. It makes small, subtle impressions, makes them over and over and over again until - if left unchallenged - the brain accepts and stores them as information, not as the propaganda they actually are.
Obviously, voters support candidates they feel share their concerns and basic principles. But it seems just as obvious that what people "know" about candidates' beliefs - good and bad - is heavily shaped by political advertising.
The danger, of course, is that the only rule governing such ads is that they be effective; truth is irrelevant.
As long as we're talking about politics and banning things, let me irritate a great many fellow journalists by bringing up the question of pre-election polls. ABC's "Nightline" devoted a provocative if inconclusive program to the subject recently.
Sometimes polls attempt to plumb the electorate's attitudes about specific issues - the arms race, the deficit, drugs and the like. Sometimes they ask people to rank the issues they consider most important in deciding whom to vote for.
Polls like these can offer important clues to the forces at work in the country, can help explain campaign strategy and, most important, can provide information essential to building support for legislative or executive actions once candidates become elected officials.
But almost all the media-generated polls also include another question. The collective answer to it becomes the focal point of the reporting about the poll's results. Candidates and their staffs invariably are asked to respond to it. And it often forms the core around which all other campaign stories are built for days afterwards.
The question is, "If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?"
But the premise is bogus. The election is most emphatically not-being held when the question is asked. The question sets up a hypothetical situation that is not and cannot be real. The answer - by definition, therefore - is deceptive.
I do not mean that the answer is inaccurate. Assuming the sample is properly constructed and the poll properly conducted, the answer is undoutedly accurate within its statistical limitations. It's just that the question itself is blatantly phony.
So what's the point? When a news organization reports the results of its or a competitor's poll, exactly what is being reported? The responses to a false question.
The result of such a poll is certainly a form of information, but is it genuine news? Reporters, editors, and producers always possess more information than they have time or space to distribute. They make judgments every second as to what to pass on to the public, presumably on the basis of what stories are the most important.
Why is the answer to a phony question so important that it merits public distribution? As far as I'm concerned, it's a case of the media reporting "news" - distorted news at that - that they themselves have created.
Is there a common thread here? I think so. The twin epidemics of inherently deceptive political ads and fundamentally flawed horse-race polls offer citizens two more reasons to feel detached from and cynical about their political system.
The ads and polls that now batter potential voters mercilessly magnify their feelings of frustration, disgust and powerlessness.
"The heck with it all" becomes the response of increasing numbers of citizens on election day. Somebody better start considering the long-term impact of that attitude on the future health of the republic.