THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Truthful politician: It need not be an oxymoron
With Election Day less than a month away, campaigns are understandably heating up. Predictably, candidates are spending more and more time criticizing one another.
Just as predictably, allegations of lying are being flung back and forth as well.
As voters, we are the consumers of this political information.
Just this past week, charges and countercharges flew in the local race for Congress between Democratic challenger Tom Perriello and Republican incumbent Virgil Goode. (Note: I have contributed to and done a small amount of volunteer work on behalf of the Perriello campaign.)
According to a September 29 article by Lisa Provence in The Hook, at issue was Goode's claim in a television advertisement that Perriello opposes offshore drilling, a claim that Provence said "the Perriello people vehemently deny."
According to the article, Perriello said the ad was a "flat-out lie" and "libelous," and further reported that the Perriello campaign charged the ad used a "doctored" photo of their man, darker than the original, to make him look "scarier."
An attorney representing the Perriello campaign sent out a letter asking television stations to stop running the ad, but NBC29 general manager Harold Wright told Provence that he was legally prohibited from pulling the ad, regardless of its veracity.
I was curious about this, since I had recently read about several cable channels refusing to run an ad they deemed offensive that criticized McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his vice president. The ad highlighted McCain's age and medical history of skin cancer in suggesting he may not survive his term.
Turns out, unsurprisingly, that Wright is correct. According to the non-partisan group FactCheck.org, the Federal Communications Act requires broadcasters who run candidate ads to show them without any censorship, even if they are false.
Interestingly, broadcasters can elect not to run any candidate ads at all, but once they agree to run some, they have to run them all.
The requirement applies only to ads by the candidates themselves. The ad I had read about regarding McCain's health was from a separate group. With such ads, broadcasters have greater leeway in deciding what to accept and what to reject based on content.
As a civil libertarian who believes in the First Amendment, I can appreciate the need for this rule.
As a consumer columnist, however, I can't help but wonder why we wouldn't allow, say, a soap manufacturer to blatantly lie in an advertisement, but we will allow a politician to do so about matters of much greater importance.
One reason, of course, is that the line between lies and arguments in the context of a political campaign is not always clear. All too often, a candidate will mischaracterize an opponent's arguments as "lies" when they are nothing of the sort. Those arguments are what elections are all about.
But clear and demonstrable errors of fact put forth by one side or another– the so-called "Swiftboating" of John Kerry's war record in 2004 is the most well-known recent example– should trouble all of us, regardless of party or ideological affiliation. The public's toleration for such falsehoods erodes our democracy.
I'm not naïve. I realize political candidates have trafficked in lies for as long as there has been politics, but it is nonetheless frustrating.
At least in the presidential election, plenty of impartial organizations, media and otherwise, are keeping tabs on the candidates. One such non-partisan organization that does a particularly thorough job, at least as far as John McCain and Barack Obama are concerned, is the aforementioned factcheck.org.
FactCheck.org does not, unfortunately, contain any material on the Perriello versus Goode contest.
I try to ignore negative ads and the inevitable counter-charges they generate. If I am interested in a particular charge, I go to the candidates' websites myself to see where they stand on the issues. In our current congressional race, those sites are perrielloforcongress.com and virgilgoode.com.
And if you think a candidate is not truthful, I hope you vote against him on that basis. Until we as consumers of political information make it clear by our votes that lying is not acceptable, it will continue.
Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.