Wednesday, September 17

Communicating Politics: Has The Bar Dropped?

It’s a good thing I watched the John Adams miniseries this summer because I might otherwise believe it when many news outlets call the 2008 elections the dirtiest, ugliest, and meanest in history.

Somehow, for me, being reminded that Jefferson vilified his longtime friend and colleague Adams in 1800 or that Jefferson himself was later vilified by his political opponents, helps keep things in perspective. Joseph Ellis, in his book The Revolutionary Generation called this rivalry unequalled in terms of “shrill accusatory rhetoric, flamboyant displays of ideological intransigence, intense personal rivalries and hyperbolic claims of imminent catastrophe.”

Although, when you think about it, Ellis really could be writing about 2008, with the only notable difference being that many poorly executed ideas like Obama Waffles or the now debunked claims by the DailyKos that Sarah Palin faked her pregnancy are often beyond either campaign team’s control.

Much more manageable are the messages being put into play by both campaigns. Obama’s claim that McCain votes 88 percent of the time with President Bush is disingenuous at best, given that the reality is Obama and McCain voted together nearly as much. And, I’ve already commented on the McCain team’s silly Obama is like Paris Hilton comparison ad. Both were wrong. Both were ineffective. Both backfired.

The excuse? Everywhere I look, “they’ve” lowered the bar “first” seems to be the prevailing mantra. Yet, nothing could be further from reality. Somebody, eventually, has to be the better person and not expect voters to ferret out the truth on their own, just as I’ve been advising closer to home. As expected, the nasty national tactics have been spilling over into local and state races.

“The Nevada Democratic Party is showing an analogous moral bankruptcy in its effort to oust state Sens. Joe Heck and Bob Beers because it must believe the end — returning the upper house to the Democrats for the first time in 18 years — justifies the execrable means.” — Jon Ralston, Las Vegas Sun

Ralston is referring to a smear campaign being promoted by the Nevada State Democratic Party to help lift up their candidate who professes not to know who is behind the campaign (um, the same people financing her). yet, she is more than happy to benefit from it. You can find one example of the fictitious campaign claims on another local blogger’s site. You can find the truth here or here.

Since the campaign was launched, several communicators have asked me what do you do when the opposition intends to spend $1 million on a mountain of lies? Don’t you hit back?

Sometimes you want to, but that’s no answer. Reactionary communication is not very effective communication. So as much as the media loves to cover such conflict, there is only one remedy for political campaign lies, in my opinion. It requires more and more truth. And that is what Sen. Beers is doing.

Now, only if national campaigners would learn, because they have set the bar lower and some local campaigners seem to have set the bar even lower than that. Enough so, that I’ve already told most of my friends that I’m not making any national election decisions until after the debates and asked some not to subscribe to or promote sound bites from either side until it can be verified as fact.

Otherwise, we risk making liars of ourselves, even if it seems justified by the audacious notion that the sun will not rise on Nov. 5 if the other candidate is elected. On the contrary, the sun will rise.

The sun will rise on Nov. 5 just as it did on July 4, 1826, after two longtime adversaries realized that for all their wanted differences, the rest of the world perceived them to be largely the same. And “Thomas Jefferson survives.”



Rich on 9/17/08, 1:17 PM said...

More words:

Another national example and the force driving it. (Hat Tip: Spin Thicket)

Anonymous said...

political communication has always been a barrier between the people and those that govern. even back in biblical and prehistoric times man struggled with communicating with superiors.

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Rich on 9/18/08, 3:58 PM said...


That would be true. It's rare when political communication captures the hearts of the people rather than enslaves it.


Rich on 9/21/08, 8:37 AM said...

More words:

The Las Vegas Review-Journal weighs in on the recent local example of astroturf in politics. My comment:

"Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising which seek to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behavior. The campaign against Sen. Bob Beers is nothing more than that with its anonymous Web sites, filtered comment fields, and out right lies.

It's no surprise to me that a black hat public relations professional, Allison Copening, would deny involvement, even though her message matches the misleading rhetoric being generated by her party perfectly. She's an embarrassment to the profession and epitomizes why the Public Relations Society of America felt a need to challenge the political campaigns this year to refrain from their attempts to mislead the public.

If this were a test of ethics within the field of public relations or communication, she would fail."

Anonymous said...

I used to think that it was all about truth and that Democrats should rebut lies with truth. (Yes, I know the other side has sometimes stretched, but it seems that has had to address mainly lies from the McCain campaign.) While I still think the truth matters, it would seem that compelling narratives matter more. Of course, those could comport with the truth, but apparently the McCain campaign doesn't feel that's good enough. I talked about this last week in Why John McCain is Lying: Fact and Narrative in the Presidential Race and got an interesting response from Bryan Del Monte of Right Commentary, who feels the same way as I do about the relevance of narrative, but not about the candidates.

Rich on 9/21/08, 10:42 AM said...


An excellent addition. However, there are some of us within the profession who do work to rebut lies with the truth. Unfortunately, many more do not.

Compelling narratives do not matter more if they are not the truth, imo. Both parties have clearly spun their bid for president and abandoned any sense of authenticity with exception to the shadows they cast or the shadows they attempt to cast on others.

What bothers me the most is now local and state races, where our elected officials impact our live much more directly, are lowering the bar even more and using the national campaigns as an excuse for their actions. In doing so, they hope to lift their entire ticket up come Nov. (I'm appalled that the Nevada Democratic Party runs state smear campaigns and claims it is justified in doing so because of what is occurring on the national level. I would be equally dismayed if it were Republicans doing the same in our state, but they are not.)

Personally, I think the voting public needs to carefully consider each candidate this election cycle and base their decisions not on party, but on the ability of the person to represent their interests.

In other words, I don't want to make my decision, this election, to be based on which side effectively out spun the other, but rather which side's promises of change might better suit the country over the long term. I urge others to do the same.

For me, I'm looking forward to mulling over the debates, where I hope we see some sense of two candidates who care about the issues more than they care about creating false images about their respective opponents.



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