Lights, Camera, Attack 

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We’ve come to expect them during an election, when candidates and political action committees resort to the lowest form of discourse. But it’s not only during the campaign season that politicians and PACs go on the attack to reshape public opinion.

In an age when anything and anyone is peddled through advertising and television reigns as the medium of choice, any ideological battle or petty gripe is grist for an attack ad. A politician faces felony charges? A conservative ideologue opposes a Supreme Court nominee? No problem. Just buy TV time to launch an attack and get your message out. Politically motivated attack ads clutter the cultural landscape.

A recent case in point: After former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted for illegally diverting corporate campaign contributions to seven Republican candidates in Texas, TV ads in Austin portrayed prosecutor Ronnie Earle as a vicious attack dog intent on destroying DeLay. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Free Enterprise Fund, which footed the bill, plans to take the ads nationwide.

When I first saw the spot, I thought I had accidentally switched to Comedy Central or Saturday Night Live, which just goes to show how difficult it has become to separate reality from parody. The spot opens with a closeup of a snarling Rottweiler and a voice-over booms, “A prosecutor with a political agenda can be vicious.” “Bad, Ronnie, Bad. It’s not a crime to be a conservative.”

There’s a twist: If you’re accused of a crime, take out ads attacking the prosecutor. (Why didn’t Scooter Libby think of that?) Apparently, DeLay’s best defense is to claim that the charges against him are politically motivated and to discredit the district attorney as a partisan.

Another case: A conservative group bought TV and radio ads opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Harriett Miers 'who went on to foil the costly campaign by withdrawing her nomination.

Who is the target audience of such ads? The viewing public can’t determine the outcome Supreme Court nominations, and DeLay’s fate is up to a jury. If the spots are aimed at jurors, does it constitute jury tampering?

It’s all about spin, and where better to spin than in a quick TV spot where image reigns supreme. Create an image'for yourself or those you despise'pitch it to the public in a snappy 30-second spot and you’re on the road to shaping public opinion and ultimately public policy.

As journalist and educator Jerry M. Landay wrote in Television Quarterly, “Voters are not seen as thinking members of a democratic society but as shoppers … passive before a barrage of audio and visual gimmicks designed to engineer consent.”

Whether you’re a politician or a political appointee, managing perception is a driving concern. Mike Brown, disgraced former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, knew the importance of crafting an image. Based on his now infamous e-mail correspondence during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, he knew looking good on TV was more important than saving lives. “Tie or not for tonight?” Brown asked an aide in one e-mail. “Button-down blue shirt?”

Who suffers when our leaders use the airwaves to manage public opinion? It’s the public who loses. To paraphrase Landay, instead of policymaking we get propaganda. Instead of leadership, we get artifice. It’s a crazy way to run a government.

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More by Eric S. Peterson

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