HALL COLUMN: What it takes to end political attack ads

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

People wonder why politicians resort to nasty attack ads in their campaigns. Then politicians complain about their opponents using dirty tricks instead of talking about issues. And if that&8217;s not enough, everyone starts promising to support tougher campaign finance laws to prevent outside influences that run the dirty attack ads.

Then election day passes and everyone gets an immediate case of amnesia for four years.

For those who have not figured it out, attack ads are prevalent in political campaigns because they work better than any other form of media exposure.

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They work on the people who scream, &8220;Lucy Baxley supports Hilary Clinton? I&8217;m not going to vote for her!&8221;

And they work on people who say, &8220;What do you mean Bob Riley&8217;s campaign manager served overseas with terrorists? I&8217;m not voting for him!&8221;

They work, quite frankly, because a majority of the voters are swayed more by 30-second television spots and five-second sound bites than by the weight of a politician&8217;s message. Then again, in today&8217;s political world, most politicians have a pretty hollow message. And why should they have anything else? They have to say what they&8217;re going to say in 30 seconds.

Am I blaming voters for politicians running attack ads? Partly. If voters would stop changing their minds about a candidate based on what some Hollywood narrator said as a grainy, black-and-white photo of a politician flashed on screen, then politicians would actually have to talk to the general electorate about something of substance.

That said, the politicians are more to blame. Most all of them say they want a campaign of ideas, and then they walk away as the U.S. Chamber or the Trial Lawyer Association comes in and does character assassinations on their opponents.

And politicians are shameless when it comes to political advertising and negative ads. A pro-Riley ad is running on television talking about how Baxley is being criticized for negative advertising. They play the ominous music and show all the bad names people are calling Baxley. It&8217;s a negative ad itself. It&8217;s the pot calling the kettle black.

And Baxley supporters are running ads targeted at one of Riley&8217;s campaign managers. The ad accuses Bill Johnson of cohorting with terrorists, supporting legalized prostitution and evading federal income taxes for 14 years. You have to stand on your head with one eye closed looking at a mirror through a periscope to find a sliver of truth in the first two claims.

The third claim, however, is dead on target. Johnson admits he did not pay his taxes for 14 years. His excuse is as flimsy as a spaghetti noodle in Mama Mia&8217;s kitchen. He wants us to believe it was his form of &8220;protest&8221; over Democratic policies that led to the Republican Revolution under former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

After serving overseas and seeing freedom fighters willing to die for their country, he thought not paying taxes was a civilized means of protest. To most people it&8217;s called tax evasion, and after 14 years of it, calling it a protest is to consider the rest of us stupid if you actually want us to believe such a cock-eyed story. But I digress…

Baxley&8217;s negative attack ads against Johnson are out of desperation. They aren&8217;t even against the candidate himself. It&8217;s guilt-by-association. Of course, going against an incumbent with high poll numbers, the best way to win is to get people not to like him. It&8217;s easier to do that than to get them to like you more. That&8217;s just politics.

The worst examples of negative advertising have slowly worked its way into judicial races across the country. This year, the race for Supreme Court Justice is poisonous. More special interest money is flying in this race than ever before.

Incumbent Chief Justice Drayton Nabers is the worst kind of offender. He is allowing powerful, out-of-state special interest groups to do all of his dirty work. To her credit, Judge Sue Bell Cobb has waged a mostly clean campaign. The latest poll numbers show her trailing by only 4 percent, which is not too shabby for the fund-raising deficit she faces.

In this humble writer&8217;s opinion, politics has no place in judicial races of this magnitude. They should be appointed positions with leadership determined by seniority or executive appointment.

But until that happens, they will suffer the same fate: an infection of negative ads. And that infection can only be cured by the rarest of politicians &8212; an inspired and inspiring one &8212; or the voters finally saying, &8220;Enough is enough.&8221;

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.