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King: Hard to sift through campaign clutter

POSTED: October 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.

With no TV reception, I've been spared the recent barrage of campaign ads. But I do have Internet access, and I'm flooded with suggestions to watch this or that on YouTube, and with e-mails that begin, "You've just got to see this."

Sorry. Campaign ads are not designed to inform. They're designed to persuade. If they provide any facts at all, the facts are one-sided and chosen for their emotional impact. They're the result of years of research by the advertising industry and public relation people whose job it is to get others to buy their product.

Before I offend friends and relatives in these professions, I want to paraphrase a fellow columnist, Leonard McDonnell, who just published a piece in defense of "spin doctors."

The future of democracy, he says, depends on public awareness, which in turn depends on professionals who distill a range of complex issues and present them to the public in understandable terms.

Of course, the term "spin doctor" was used to get attention, but McDonnell is right about the need for public relations people, men and women in advertising, and even the much- maligned lobbyist. We live in a very complicated and interconnected world, and our congressional members and business leaders need these contacts in order to be informed on a number of issues.

Most of us are smart enough to filter out the huge amount of hype floating around these days, but when it comes to party politics things get emotional, and individual judgment often suffers.

Political campaigns are a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all game, and political ads reflect this.

However, there is a way to look at these ads critically.
Search for news stories and Web sites that break down the ads into provable facts, mere insinuations, and out and out fraud. Newspapers sometimes have sections that do this. There's a web site called FactCheck.org that monitors the accuracy of what the major U.S. political players are saying in their TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.

Americans pride themselves on their right of free speech, but when there is no penalty for exaggeration and out-and-out falsehood, the public becomes cynical. No one trusts anyone, and truth takes a back seat to expediency. This is a sorry state of affairs. We can do better.

The American voter is going to be tested in November as never before. We chose the leaders who got us into the mess we face today. Now we have to choose leaders who will get us out. The challenge is to think critically and unemotionally about the men and woman running for office.

The battle between "liberal" and "conservative" values is counterproductive right now. Every time we use a label to define someone or something, we've stopped thinking. When we don't question, we aren't doing our job. We've all grown up in a world of advertising, so we're use to hyperbole. We don't expect unvarnished truth from the advertising industry, or from our politicians. Just the same it is our job to try.

As I write this column, Congress is preparing to vote on a rescue-bailout package for the economy. You have a choice of which word to use. Rescues are good; bailouts are bad depending on where you stand. But think about this: Will "bailing out" Wall Street "rescue" the general economy and thus the average citizen?

I don't know. Do you? If I don't trust the president, if I don't trust Congress, whom do I trust? The present economic crisis came about because people were sure about things they didn't understand, like derivatives and credit swaps, like going to war in Iraq.

When did you hear a politician say he didn't know or that she was wrong? We live in a world where honesty is often taken for weakness. We want our leaders to be strong, to be tough, even if it means skirting the truth, but let's not mistake bravado for bravery.

Truth telling isn't easy. We all lie at times.

Governments will always lie when they believe their hold on power is at risk. It's up to the public to seek the truth no matter how inconvenient. Let's begin with some of those campaign ads.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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