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HOWARD ROSENBERG : Campaign Ads Foul the Airwaves

November 04, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Political seasons are rarely pretty. Yet California's 1994 election campaign does appear to be breaking new grime, oozing mud across the airwaves in ways that soil not only candidates but the entire process itself.

In a discussion of campaign tactics on CNN recently, media researcher Robert Lichter said that every study he'd seen showed that "there are more positive ads than negative ads."

On the planet Pluto, perhaps.

Closer to home, many California candidates continue to demonize their opponents through paid television and radio spots in the campaigns' waning days. Voters have "learned" that soft-on-crime wimp Kathleen Brown would appoint lenient judges. That career politician hussy Dianne Feinstein has lined her husband's pockets and wants to subsidize lavish government spending with higher taxes. That two-faced Matt Fong is a secret lawbreaker. That heartless Dan Lungren is a murderer. And that Mike Huffington is "the Texas millionaire Californians can't trust." Yadda yadda yadda.

Not all the political ads are mucky. Among the loftiest and least cluttered by hyperbole are spots that dramatically attack Proposition 188--the initiative that would supplant local anti-smoking rules with statewide regulations--merely by listing proponents and opponents of the measure. If only other campaign ads were as free of cheap shots.

On the other hand, in our fantasies, at least, who among us has not broken the lips of bratty, mean-spirited candidates and their smoothie campaigners and announcer surrogates? To say nothing of media members whose own actions generate a broadcasting environment that seems itself to encourage dishonesty.

When the stakes are highest, in fact, many in television as well as politics share a tendency to suspend values they usually publicly espouse, routinely engaging in practices that are deceptive if not outright malevolent. Here we are in November, for example, a month of popularity contests that determine fates both in politics and television, a month in which voters' measurement of candidates is matched by audience measurements that set TV advertising rates.

So what are we again witnessing? Some local stations and networks deceptively using their news programs to celebrate their entertainment programs, under the guise of informing the public.

And what else? A slew of candidates airing misleading political spots that celebrate themselves, also under the guise of informing the public.

There's dirt . . . and there's dirt. Fortunately, only one political ad on California's campaign front stoops as low as the notorious Willie Horton, soft-on-crime spot that Republican George Bush successfully deployed against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. This year's offending ad has surfaced in the California attorney general's race, with Democratic challenger Tom Umberg's "Remember Polly, Dump Lungren" spot starring murder victim Polly Klaas' grandfather in an emotional 30 seconds that appear to blame Republican incumbent Lungren for the girl's death in 1993. The spot seems to be saying that Lungren is not merely soft on crime, he's a proponent of crime.

Much broader in scale are the relentless attack ads--like wave after wave of choppers dropping napalm on a single village--that GOP challenger Huffington has used to clobber and draw virtually even with Democratic incumbent Feinstein in the Senate race. After playing bad cop for so many months, however, Huffington now plays good cop in a new spot. It utilizes the politics of warmth and diffusion, deploying the soft-speaking congressman in a "Fantasy Island" of lush greenery and tropical breezes, a setting so idyllic that only the harp is missing.

Although a mere blip compared with the deep-pockets negativity of Huffington, Feinstein's own paid ad campaign has hardly been timid or free of negativity. On a relatively light note, her spot portraying Huffington as an untrustworthy Texas oil mogul features a photograph of her opponent which makes him look like an oil slick .

Making your opponent look dreadful is routine even in ads that are only moderately unfair. At least Huffington is colorized in Feinstein's spot. A current spot for Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown captures Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in cold and unfeeling black and white, simultaneously running negative messages about Wilson printed in an irritating bright green. In contrast, the same spot has state Treasurer Brown in warm colors, the smiling, fuzzy populist mixing with all the folks while printed messages boast of her incredible feats. In a Wilson ad, though, it's Brown who appears in frigid black and white and the governor who's in color, a respected public servant of the people amid his adoring constituents.

Of course, words count, too. An ad for Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, discloses that his GOP opponent Fong, a member of the State Board of Equalization, is not merely one of those routinely unsavory politicians "we cannot trust." Much worse, he's an "appointed" one.

All but absent from campaign ads this season is a sense of humor, an exception being a misleading-but-funny new spot opposing the single-payer health care initiative, Proposition 186. Insisting that the measure would have politics-playing politicians making medical decisions based on polling figures, the spot suggests, for example, that they might nix hip replacements because it would cost them "only a few thousand votes."

What many candidates need are ethics replacements.

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