Posted on Thu, Sep. 04, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Our View
Use Civility Project launch to improve campaign season

The Civility Project, launched by the Millennium Group of the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation to help develop a next generation of leaders, comes at a crucial time: election season.

The 2003 campaign season will be a test of the power of a good idea to improve our community.

The half-truths, distorted records, false inferences, misleading claims and, sometimes, outright lies that have become a staple of political attack ads add to public cynicism about politics. Such ads tend to come late in a campaign -- when it's too late to respond. They tend to use narrators, stark images and ominous music.

Significantly, the candidate or group behind the ad is not seen or heard. Many times the sponsor of the ad is barely identified -- small print, unknown name -- so voters don't know who's really behind it. These "stealth attacks" turn people off to politics.

The Civility Project -- along with existing efforts co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and other organizations in our community -- can play a large role this campaign season in holding candidates and independent interest groups more accountable. The Civility Project can discourage attack politics during the election season -- and encourage a compare/contrast style of criticism over a resort to attack politics.

A "Stand-By-Your-Ad" campaign would help -- encouraging candidates and independent interest groups to take responsibility by speaking for themselves in their ads. That means an image of the candidate himself or herself -- or, in the case of a group, a representative of the special interest group -- has to appear in each and every ad.

This personal accountability tends to cut down on false, misleading attacks.

Some campaign codes ask candidates and interest groups to avoid "demeaning references" and "demeaning visual images" of opponents. You know the type -- using images that make the opponent look goofy, stupid, unprofessional, incompetent, even drunk or high.

The importance of the Civility Project is to put enough public pressure against attack ads so that using them backfires with voters. Force campaigns to buck the conventional wisdom that says when your candidate can't establish a firm lead, go on the attack. Create a climate where campaigns believe they must advocate or compare/contrast candidates and issues.

In this "civility" effort, it's important to distinguish between attack ads and robust, valuable criticism.

Compare/contrast ads strongly criticize the opponent by pointing to his or her record, but these criticisms are paired with positive statements about one's own candidate or position so the overall message is more balanced.

Challengers, especially, running against incumbents, have to be able to point out the incumbent's record in strong terms.

An example of how public backlash can work came in the November 2001 election for Duluth City Council.

The political action committee of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce targeted one incumbent for defeat and bought a ton of television time to directly attack him. The ads did not target the candidate's personal life and stuck to the incumbent's record. But their lateness in the campaign (leaving little time to respond), virtual anonymity ("Paid for by Duluth First," a reference only political insiders would know, was the only identifier of the Chamber political action committee in small print) and lack of any positive message probably just turned voters off.

Between the example of the 2001 election and the emphasis on respectful disagreement with the new Civility Project, we hope candidates and interest groups will take a cue with their political advertising: Clearly identify who you are, leave enough time to respond, have something positive to stay about your own agenda. People don't like hit-and-run stealth attacks.