Finding Truth Amidst the Mudslinging

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Oct. 26 and thereafter
730 words

Note to editors: In order to provide timely commentary on the statewide elections, Andrea Neal’s column next week will move on Wednesday Nov. 3 for Thursday, Nov. 4 release.

INDIANAPOLIS — As my pastor pointed out in his Sunday sermon, even Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in mudslinging. The rabbis called the upstart preacher a "troublemaker" and a "scoundrel." Jesus replied with an equally sharp tongue, labeling his critics a "brood of vipers."

At the risk of oversimplifying his message, let me borrow my minister’s example to make a point about the 2004 Indiana political campaigns. The negative ads I’ve seen on TV this year have been worse than anything I can remember from recent election cycles, worse even than dubbing someone a scoundrel or a viper. Too many candidates have crossed the line that separates legitimate criticism of an opponent’s credentials and record from exaggeration and character assassination.

Both political parties are guilty of distortion. According to factcheck.org, a non-partisan watchdog site, the George Bush and John Kerry camps are flooding the airwaves with negative ads: "A Republican party ad twists a Kerry quote about terrorism. A Kerry ad implies middle-income taxpayers are paying more taxes than ‘the wealthiest,’ which isn"t true. A Bush ad repeats a baseless claim that Kerry"s health plan will wrench medical decisions away from doctors and patients. Another Kerry ad again blames Bush for long-standing tax incentives for companies keeping capital overseas."

We don’t see many of these ads in Indiana, where the presidential election outcome is a fait accompli. But we’ve had more than enough negativity on the state level. Most disturbing are the Joe Kernan ads attacking Mitch Daniels’ experience as a senior vice president at Eli Lilly and Co. One of them states, "Mitch Daniels made millions trying to keep prescription drug prices high."

That’s a distortion. It infers that Lilly paid Daniels to work against consumer interests. Lilly paid Daniels to head its North American pharmaceutical operations and later to be senior vice president of corporate strategy and policy.

Yes, Daniels made good money working long hours at Indiana’s most prominent business. Lilly is a Fortune 500 firm that must meet shareholder expectations to stay competitive, yet still invests billions of its profits to research and develop life-saving drugs.

The Kernan ad writers are just cynical enough to hope lower-income folk will resent Daniels’ high salary and stock options earned during his Lilly career. Carried to its logical conclusion, this kind of cynicism could keep many good folks from even considering a stab at public service.

I can imagine the ad copy should a trial lawyer run for office. "John Q. Smith has spent his career defending murderers, drug dealers and pedophiles. Is that that the kind of man Hoosiers want in the governor’s office?"

Or how about a utility executive? "During the 10 years, Tom L. Jones headed the Hoosier Coal and Gas Co., fuel prices increased every single year. Do you want a man like that spending your hard-earned tax dollars?"

Politicians run negative ads because they work. They move poll numbers and sway elections. Unfortunately, they have another byproduct, one that alienates the very voters candidates seek to attract.

According to the Institute for Global Ethics’ Project on Campaign Conduct: 59 percent of citizens believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth, 39 percent believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters and 43 percent believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents.

What a sad commentary on the political process.

There is nothing wrong with negative ads that criticize candidates’ histories, voting records or positions as long as the spirit behind them is one of seeking truth. When ad writers distort truth to play on the public’s fears or biases, that is character assassination.

My pastor was especially bothered by two campaign ads — one that accused a candidate of not caring about children, the other alleging someone was out to hurt senior citizens. How is it possible, he asked, that a candidate would intentionally want to hurt the elderly or ignore the needs of children?

It’s not. People enter public office because they want to make a difference. They can and should disagree over policy, but they should stop impugning each other’s motives. May our votes on Nov. 2 reflect that expectation.

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