"It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." — The Christophers
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has been shining bright lights on political campaigns for over 20 years through websites such as www.factcheck.org — revealing distortions and exaggerations in ads by both parties.
In a recent interview on PBS, she said "I haven't seen a primary campaign that ... has done so much damage to candidates from whom we will select a Republican nominee. And I worry a great deal about what that means for the general election." (www.billmoyers.com — "Decoding the campaigns").
Jamieson describes this year's Republican candidates as "cannibalizing one's own in the most devastating way" — "undercutting the character" of their opponents, and making it "impossible" for them to "make a case on the issues" because voters no longer "believe or trust them."
Most ads so far have affected Republicans, but destructive third-party ads demonize opponents in both parties and, unlike ads in which a candidate "approved this message," they aren't approved by anyone except the secretive group behind the ad.
Recently, The Annenberg Foundation added a new website, www.flackcheck.org, using humorous illustrations of the distortions in super PAC ads, such as the following example of what they might have said about Lincoln's Gettysburg address:
"Narrator: Has President Lincoln, given up? At a speech in Pennsylvania, he even refused to dedicate a battlefield, still fresh with the blood of tens of thousands of Union soldiers.
"Narrator: Lincoln believes that America will perish from the earth.
"Abraham Lincoln: Perish from the earth.
"Narrator: And that our soldiers have died in vain.
"Abraham Lincoln: Died in vain.
"Narrator: Honestly Abe, died in vain?
"Abraham Lincoln: In vain, in vain, in vain, in vain.
"Narrator: Abraham Lincoln, wrong on the war, wrong for the Union."
The Flackcheck website offers radio and TV station managers a way to light a few candles by "taking the fact-checking content from the major fact checkers and posting it against the ads they're airing in the various primaries ... Local broadcast stations have the right to refuse third-party ads ... a station manager can go and look at (Flackcheck's) website and see ... the deceptions in the ads."
Flackcheck also provides a way for us to contact station managers in our area, and makes it easy for station managers to check the accuracy of third-party ads by listing stations in states airing "deceptive third-party presidential ads" and asking those station managers to "consider taking down the misleading ads."
Of course, most station managers are not going to refuse the money that third-party advocates pay them, but they might be shamed into demanding that ads on their stations are not filled with lies.
In Massachusetts, something positive is happening in the race between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren. Both have agreed to a "people's pledge" to keep special interest group attack ads off the air. If either campaign violates that pledge, they have to donate 50 percent of the value of the ad to a charity of their opponent's choice, and so far, it seems to be working.
We can also sign up for email updates from the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Free Press and the Media Access Project, some of the public interest groups fighting for transparency in third-party ads.
I believe we need both liberal and conservative ideas and values in this country, but the partisan outbursts by commentators on MSNBC or Fox appeal mainly to those already convinced of their own viewpoints. If we listen only to those we agree with, we rarely learn anything.
It's up to us — Republicans, Democrats and independent voters. Will we light a candle, or continue cursing the darkness?
Eileen Ford is a Rockport resident and a regular Times columnist.