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The difference between a negative campaign and a dishonest one

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002

With Florida's gubernatorial contest about to shift into high gear, I say bring on the negative campaigning. That's right -- negative campaigning, the more the better. After the Democrats' summer lovefest, I'm starved for something resembling a real campaign. Unfortunately, negative campaigning has become synonymous with dirty campaigning in the political lexicon, and the press is partly to blame. Criticizing a candidate's voting record or pointing out his hypocrisy on an issue is in the best tradition of American politics. Editorial writers and political commentators do it. So why shouldn't campaigns do it? It may be negative, but it's one way to keep the politicians honest.

The political class tends to lump all attack or contrast ads under the pejorative heading of "negative advertising." That's a mistake. As long as attack ads are accurate, fair and civil, they help inform voters and strengthen democracy.

A study done by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, found that what the press calls negative advertising offers voters "more relevant issue content" than ads that contain no information about the opposing candidate.

In response to poll questions, voters routinely list "negative campaigning" among their complaints about the American political system. However, when it comes to political advertising, voters are more sophisticated and discerning than the political press. "They do not dismiss all advertising critical of an opponent as "negative' or "bad', but rather they make a number of sensible distinctions," Jamieson wrote.

For example, her research found that voters dislike attack ads that use inflammatory language or question a candidate's personal life or contain misleading information. However, they are more tolerant of attack ads that accurately and fairly criticize a candidate's record or campaign platform.

Political analysts and reporters, she wrote, "miss these distinctions when they ask about "negativity' and not about contrast versus attack, or honest versus dishonest attack, or personal versus issue-based attack . . . Pundits and scholars who collapse all attack ads into the catchall category of "negative campaigning' are treating the complex world of political ads in a simplistic manner that is not shared by the citizenry at large."

In last week's Democratic gubernatorial debate, if you can call it that, the three candidates spoke not a critical word of each other but piled on Gov. Jeb Bush, saying some pretty terrible things about him. For example, Bill McBride said Bush doesn't "care" about the children in state protective custody. That strikes me not only as negative but cruel. Jeb Bush should be held accountable for the failures of the Department of Children and Family on his watch, but to say he doesn't care about the children is a low blow.

The governor, however, doesn't deserve much sympathy. His own television ads falsely accuse McBride and Janet Reno of fudging their positions on, among other things, the death penalty. There are issues on which McBride and Reno have been doing a song and dance, but the death penalty is not one of them.

Instead of just wringing their hands over negative campaigning, political reporters and commentators should devote more of their time and energy to keeping candidates honest and holding them accountable. We too often allow candidates to get away with distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies.

A prime example of what I'm talking about occurred in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley in Iowa. The debate's most dramatic moment came when Gore introduced an Iowa farmer to the audience. "Chris Peterson is here," Gore said. "Could you stand up, Chris. Chris is a farmer with 400 acres . . . Back in 1993, 300 of his 400 acres were flooded out. I joined with (U.S. Sen.) Tom Harkin to get the extra billion dollars of disaster relief to help Chris and the others who were flooded out."

Then Gore turned to Bradley, his former colleague in the U.S. Senate, and asked, "Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?"

Bradley never recovered, and the press declared Gore the winner by a knock-out.

The truth came out a month later when the New York Times reported: "Mr. Gore's accusation was false and unfair. Mr. Bradley supported the 1993 legislation that provided $4.8-billion in emergency flood relief for farmers like Mr. Peterson. What Mr. Bradley and 31 other senators opposed was an amendment that would have provided an additional $900-million in disaster compensation. The Clinton administration also opposed the amendment until literally minutes before the floor debate ended."

Gore's attack on Bradley was not negative campaigning. It was a lie, and Gore got away with it.

In the weeks ahead, Florida voters should not confuse campaign ads that accurately criticize and challenge candidates on issues with the kind of dishonest campaigning Al Gore was so good at.

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