When Campaign Ads Go Too Far

When Campaign Ads Go Too Far October 22, 2010

Campaign ads are a sordid lot.  We all know this.  But how do we know when campaign ads have crossed the line from spin to outright dishonesty, from manipulative to exploitative and morally repugnant?

A recent transplant from Boston to Atlanta, I have not lived in Georgia long enough to feel invested in the local politics.  I should care more than I do, since the local elections will influence the life I lead, but I tend to focus on national political issues. Several recent ads, however, have truly disgusted me.  They raise again this issue: What are the ethical principles that govern political rhetoric?  When is it rhetoric as usual that we simply accept and shake our head at, and when is it so dishonest or unfair that it should not be tolerated?

The candidates for Governor in Georgia are Republican Nathan Deal and Democrat Roy Barnes.  Neither is a political genius, as far as I can tell.  Roy Barnes was governor of Georgia once before, and everyone seems generally agreed that he did a mediocre job at best.  Nathan Deal is a businessman and a Congressman with some ethics complaints against him, but he has run a decent campaign and seems poised to win.  One recent poll suggests that his lead may be contracting.

Roy Barnes’ early ads were pathetic (as so many local political ads are) but within-bounds.  You never saw these kinds of ads in Boston, with a couple of hayseeds in flannel and exaggerated accents reflecting the opinions of the common man, but, well, whatever.  This is Georgia, after all:

Recently, however, as the clock ticks down to midnight and Barnes finds himself on the verge of losing the race, his ads have taken a darker turn.  Acts of desperation are often ugly — and these are, indeed, ugly.  Witness the following:

The story here is that Deal, way back in 1991, when he was President Pro Tem of the Georgia State Senate — and a Democrat at the time, sought to bring Georgia’s rape shield law in line with federal standards, in order to strengthen the law against court challenges.  Rape shield laws protect rape victims from having to recount their sexual histories in front of the court.  On the one hand, no one wants an actual rape victim to be forced to relive her experience or defend that she was not “looking for it” because of the clothes that she wore.  On the other hand, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and should have the opportunity to make his case.  If rape shield laws in Georgia were out of step with federal laws, then rape convictions could potentially be overturned on appeal.  Nathan Deal very briefly raised the possibility of changing Georgia’s rape shield law to bring it closer to the federal law, but when women’s groups objected he immediately abandoned the effort and went along with their wishes.

Twenty years later, however, in the midst of a hard-fought gubernatorial contest, Roy Barnes brings this fairly minor discussion out of the woodwork.  Now, it is entirely legitimate to consider the legislative history of a politician, even from twenty years ago.  It is in-bounds to say that Nathan Deal considered attempting to change the Georgia rape shield law.  But it is not legitimate, not honest, to say that Deal “fought” to change the law (he gave up the attempt at the first sign of opposition), and it’s certainly not fair to place ads that very clearly pose Nathan Deal as an aggressor in sexual assaults.  But what else can you say about ads like the following?

First, look at these online ads.  The first begins like this (to the right) and then text appears at the bottom, saying, “Congressman Nathan Deal wrote a bill making it harder for rape victims to come forward.  If you or your daughter were raped, Nathan Deal would add insult to injury.”  The young woman pictured in the ad is…well, what?  Being raped?  She is clearly terrified, and someone is covering her mouth from behind.  A Barnes partisan could say that she is being silenced, not raped, but the image is clearly trying to evoke the horror of rape, and associate that horror with Nathan Deal.  Yet does anyone really believe that Deal was interested in punishing rape victims?  Jay Bookman, a reporter who was covering Georgia politics at the time writes: “I was covering the state Legislature pretty intensely back then, and my admittedly vague recollection is that knowledgeable, well-intentioned lawyers were saying at the time that the changes proposed by Deal would have been fine. But they were saying it quietly, off the record, because public opinion had coalesced so powerfully on the other side and nobody wanted to get tagged as being pro-rapist. That happens sometimes; good legislation gets a bad rep, and everyone decides that it’s not worth the political capital needed to rescue it.”

The add ends with the graphic to the left.  Yes, it says, “Tell Congressman Nathan Deal rape victims didn’t ask to be raped.”  It asserts, quite clearly, that Nathan Deal believes that those who are raped deserved it, or wanted it, or went looking for it.  It’s a barbaric thing to imply of someone, yet the implication is abundantly clear.

As Bookman writes, “Good ads are supposed to make an impact, and this one surely does. But it does so by sensationalizing rape and by implicating Deal as — at the very least — a co-conspirator in sexual assault. It provokes revulsion and horror, and it attempts to pin that revulsion and horror on a candidate for public office. Regardless of the merits of the legal debate that inspired it, the ad is grossly unfair. It exploits rape and its victims for political gain.”  Bookman is no cheerleader for Nathan Deal, yet he says, “There ought to be some places you won’t go, some things you won’t do. This was one of them.”  Accusing a candidate, who was seeking to help rape victims win verdicts that would not be overturned, of re-brutalizing the victims of rape, and believing that they “asked to be raped,” is truly beyond the pale.

But wait, there’s more.  Not only does Barnes indulge in an grossly unfair and appallingly manipulative ad regarding rape; he also doctors video.  On Tuesday the 12th, a journalist for the local Fox5 News reported that Nathan Deal had, while a member of the U. S. Congress, explored whether local authorities might take over responsibility for a private road used by his auto-salvaging company.  Deal has had one or two ethics questions along the way, but they have always remained within the gray areas.  In any case, that evening, Deal was leaving a debate at the Temple in Atlanta.  As Jim Galloway reports, “The Deal campaign apparently had decided beforehand that any comment by the candidate would only give additional legs to the Fox5 report. Aides hustled Deal out the door without a word.”

A Democratic party tracker — someone who follows the opposition’s candidate around and hopes to catch unflattering footage — recorded Deal’s exit from the building, while a few reporters trailed after him, asking, to no avail, if he had any comments on the Fox5 report.  The campaign operative then sent the video to local political reporter Jim Galloway, who posted it at his blog, with the prescient observation that we would soon be seeing the video in a campaign ad.  Here is the original:

Galloway was right that the video would be used for an ad, but presumably even he did not foresee that the Barnes campaign would doctor the video.  The undoctored video shows a few reporters following the candidate, asking whether he had any comments; nothing terribly interesting.  Happens all the time.  Reporters often ask questions of candidates as they rush by, and are often ignored.  The doctored video ads the voices of two other reporters, a male and a female, who are shouting after the departing candidate, aggressively, angrily, with evident frustration.  Here is the edited video:

The difference in the effect between the real video and the faked video is pretty remarkable.  The first seems pedestrian, ordinary, reporters following up on a story that may or may not be important.  The second makes it sound as though a mob with torches and pitchforks is about ready to tar and feather Nathan Deal because they’re so disgusted that he won’t answer their questions.

A local reporter pressed Roy Barnes on whether this was deliberately misleading the public, and asked whether he had signed off on the ad.  “I don’t approve the production of any commercial,” said Barnes.  But of course, in clear text right there at the end of the ad, it says, “Authorized by Roy Barnes.”

Nathan Deal and the Republican Governors Association have responded with some tough attacks of their own, but nothing that rises to this level of deception.  The rape shield ad is misleading and morally repulsive, clearly intended to taint Deal with the horrific evil of rape; the “Nathan Deal running” ad is repulsive because it is so misleading.  If any campaign can have a tracker follow after a candidate leaving an event, and then add in fictitious voices throwing out angry questions and receiving no answer, then we are no longer able to hold campaign ads accountable to reality.

These are the kinds of ads that people who believe that there should be integrity in the public square should stand up and oppose.  Yet, campaign ads are often bad, and yes, the choices we face in many elections are uninspiring decisions between bad and worse.  But we need to push back against ads that are growing progressively more deceptive, manipulative, and unethical.  Let’s demand better, and let’s not reward advertising like this.

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