Skip to content

Cleaning Up Political Campaigns

This letter was written in response to an article by the Political Editor of the San Jose Mercury News, Philip Trounstine, concerning a local group called the Ethical Campaign Project. The project was a loose coalition of politicians and public interest groups, the goal of which was to improve the tenor of political campaigning in the San Francisco Bay area. The nature of subsequent campaigns convinces me that the project has had little effect.

The letter was submitted as a proposal, not for publication. As I received no reply, and have not heard of this proposal being implemented, I must assume it fell on deaf ears.

27 April 1997

Mr. Trounstine,

I just finished reading your column about the Ethical Campaign Project and, while I applaud the efforts to improve the nature of public discourse and politics, I believe there is a more practical and effective way to achieve that end than cobbling together a loose and fragile covenant between the very people whose interests are most served by the current system.

During the last election I attended a candidate’s forum for a congressional race. There were about fifty people there to hear the “debate”; since the forum lasted about two hours and each of the five candidates got about three minutes on each topic there were, at most, eight topics discussed; and, as usual, one or two of them were topics that had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with public policy. Because of the time constraints, no topic was really covered in-depth; it was less a “debate” than a statement of positions, with a little ill-tempered sparring thrown in for amusement.

Assume candidates could manage such speaking engagements five times a week during a six-month campaign. They would reach about 6000 people. Since these appearances are often broadcast on public-access cable (but not on any commercial stations), let’s assume as many again catch at least one such forum on television.

In a congressional district, that amounts to less than three percent of the electorate. Even for a city race in a town the size of Sunnyvale or Santa Clara, the fraction is probably not more than ten percent.

In other words, well over 90% of the electorate never hear the candidate accuse his or her opponent of anything, never hear the candidate sling mud, never hear the candidate trot out misleading statistics or distortions of their opponents’ records, because 90% of the electorate never hear the candidate at all. What they hear is what the media reports about what the candidates said, and what the media has accepted for airing as paid advertising.

Improving campaign ethics, then, is in large part as simple as getting the editors and ad managers for the local media to adopt their own “code of fair campaign practices”, the primary and fundamental rule of which would be:

Refuse to report (or pass through, in the form of advertising) what candidates and their supporters say about their opponents’ records, characters, positions, or politics unless and until they disclose the specific source(s) of their allegations.

In other words, insist on facts to back up the rhetoric, then follow-up with research. And if, in light of the facts, the rhetoric is misleading or open to interpretation or mistaken or dishonest then, by all mean,s report it but surround it with proper context when doing so. Tell us what they said, but tell us also:

  • Was that really a vote to reduce Medicare or was it just as likely a rejection of wasteful spending in the other 95% of the budget? Was it an isolated vote, or part of a consistent record?
  • Was that really a program cut or merely a reduction in the rate of growth? Were alternatives to the program created (or already existing) to offset the reduction? Are the effects of the reduction really as tragic as claimed or do they represent a minor adjustment at the margin? How many people will really be affected? Who are they really likely to be?
  • Did the study cited have any scientific validity? Was it peer-reviewed? Are its conclusions generally accepted, or are they considered eccentric? Was its conclusion even close to what was claimed about it? Are the statistics so flimsy that changes within the margins of error could lead to a different policy position?
  • What is the basis for claims about the future effects of policy proposals? What assumptions undergird them and what chain of reasoning links them together? What are the best, worst, most-likely, and “typical” cases? Are there widely accepted alternative analyses?

In other words, when the narrow recitation of isolated fact obscures truth, dig out the truth.

This is not a call for self-censorship. I would expect accusations and counter accusations and name-calling and posturing to be reported in full and in lurid detail, just as they are today. However, I would also expect them to be surrounded by a critical evaluation of what was said and a summary of the associated facts. In other words, I would expect reporters to report the news rather than merely to repeat it.

After all, it is not really news that a political candidate — or a single-issue activist or a representative of some special interest group — believes his or her opponent should not win the election. What is news is the reasoning and factual basis behind that belief.

A similar kind of rule could be applied to advertising. Any newspaper or television station would be well within its rights — and well advised legally — to reject commercial advertising which it knew to be untrue or misleading. Why then shouldn’t the same be true of political advertising? How much more honest and decent would our political campaigns be if all the local media outlets agreed to a simple rule:

Refuse to print or broadcast any advertisement from which a typical and reasonable member of the local community would draw a conclusion about the candidate or issue under consideration which is contradicted by the known facts.

Note that the advertisement would be judged not on its text but on the response it invokes in a “reasonable” viewer/reader. This addresses head-on the “gray areas” mentioned in your column, in which claims are made which are technically accurate but practically misleading.

This is, of course, an extremely slippery standard to implement and I won’t pretend to know the best way to do so while protecting against abuse of the process to exclude unpopular candidates and ideas. However, some protection is offered by the fact that the standard only rejects advertisements whose implications can be proven false.  Ambiguous conclusions – neither supported nor contradicted by known facts — should not be sufficient grounds for rejecting publication or broadcast.

I think that if the editors/news directors and advertising managers for the Mercury News, the Chronicle and Examiner, the Guardian, the major San Jose and San Francisco television stations, and the handful of local weeklies got together and worked out such an agreement between them we would have taken a great step toward cleaning up and civilizing the nasty public cat-fights which pass for political dialogue in the Bay Area.

© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply