There is no surer sign that the political season is in full swing than the rise in volume of negative campaign advertising on television and radio that threatens to drown out all sensible discourse about the forthcoming elections. With so much riding on their outcome, it becomes crucial that every citizen eligible to go to the polls not only try to keep abreast of the issues at stake but also adopt a critical view of the competing claims, both positive and negative, made by the various candidates and their proxies.
The recent allegation leveled against a high-profile nominee for Senate that she uttered an ethnic slur some three decades ago highlights one of the sleazier, though all too common, practices on the campaign trail—the digging up of dirt on political adversaries and its subsequent airing in the media.
This is not the appropriate forum for discussing this case’s particular merits or lack thereof, but as an example of one of the preferred weapons in the political strategist’s arsenal, it bears consideration. Without learning to evaluate statements made by candidates about their opponents with a critical eye, the voter becomes a victim of the often skewed information typically purveyed by campaign staff.
Any seasoned journalist knows that ascertaining the validity of just about any story requires a substantial amount of legwork. A reporter who has been burned even once, whether by mistakenly trusting a presumably reliable source or by talking with someone who doesn’t have first hand knowledge of an issue, becomes a habitual skeptic.
Spend even a little bit of time in the newsroom and you are bound to come across individuals purporting to have witnessed, or heard about, some extraordinary story, whether it falls under the category of politics, tragedy or human interest. Spend a little more time looking into the story, and you will sometimes discover it is without substance.
Just how a self-described eyewitness can swear to the truth of some statement that eventually turns out to be false is a question that may be best left to psychologists, but you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realize that part of the reason is the inflated sense of self-importance derived by those claiming to have been present at the scene of some remarkable incident, or privy to an extraordinary secret.
All the attention lavished on them by the press becomes intoxicating, and if they have to exaggerate a bit to pique the interest of various news organizations so be it. In a culture where celebrity reigns, people will do anything for exposure, and will only relinquish it reluctantly. Which is why you will often see the same faces in the news, over and over, ad nauseam. Such was the case in this most recent political scandal, where the source has peddled similar accounts to the press for years.
Given the news media’s insatiable hunger for new stories, preferably tawdry ones to titillate the public, it’s not hard to understand how such claims get recycled, taking on a life of their own and seeming to gain credibility by dint of their having been repeated so often.
Never mind that the source in question may have an axe to grind, or is possibly harboring a longstanding grudge against the person whose character he is maligning. If it’s a sensational story, it will run, somewhere.
And once it falls into the hands of the professional spinmeisters in the employ of a political candidate, then it becomes fair game for use against the enemy, especially if it has the imprimatur of a news organization.
But by that time, the end consumer of the information—in this case the voting public—is twice removed from its source, without the benefit of assessing that person’s credibility on their own.
So amidst the maddening din of the campaign season, take care to pay attention to who is making the noise.