by Lisette Livingston
Lesley R.Chinn contributed to this story
A picture is worth a thousand words and a negative political attack ad is worth a thousand more. With the advent of the Internet and the production of savvy television commercials, political ads are sometimes sliced, diced and spun into a web of misleading and suggestive attacks. Often used to create images that incite fear, create confusion and sometimes downright deceive voters, separating fact from fiction can be more than a notion for voters headed to the polls.
In 1988, Willie Horton, a black man, was used in an ad to attack Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis for his support of a prisoner furlough program in Massachusetts. Horton was convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and incarcerated at the Concord Correctional Facility in Massachusetts. In June of 1986, he was released as part of a weekend furlough program, but did not return. The next year in April, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Horton twice raped a local woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging her fiancé. He then stole the car belonging to the man he had assaulted, but was later captured by police. For his crimes, Horton was sentenced in Maryland to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. Vincent J. Femia, the sentencing judge, refused to return him to Massachusetts. On April 18, 1996, Horton was transferred to the Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximumsecurity prison, where he remains incarcerated today.
Presidential Candidate George H. W. Bush would later use the Horton issue to win the Presidential election in 1988 after Michael Dukakis clinched the Democratic nomination. Although run as an independent expenditure and separate from the Bush campaign, the ad included a menacing mug shot of Horton and played on the fears of crime and prejudice against Blacks. While there was no documented evidence that specifically showed the Horton ad won the election for Bush, Dukakis’ failure to forcefully answer the charge that he had let Horton run loose to ‘terrorize innocent people’ and accusations about his continued support of the furlough program until the Massachusetts legislature changed the law, was surely a game changer in the election. Ironically, while Dukakis supported the program as a method of criminal rehabilitation, it was actually signed into law by Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972.
Six years later, a number of consumer advocate groups, on a mission for factual accuracy, are changing the landscape of campaigns and commercials. Just as quickly as misleading political ads can go up, the same groups are bringing them down and are aiming to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. Created in 1994 and based in Washington D.C., Factcheck.org is one of those groups. A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the organization monitors what is said by major U.S. political players in television ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. The organization accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals.
Viveca Novak, deputy director of Factcheck.org cited a recent ad about Senator Obama as an example of an ad that misleads the public. In the commercial, Obama is tied to a corrupt political Democratic machine in Chicago. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., Tony Rezko, a real estate developer, and Bill Daley, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce (also the brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley) are all depicted in the ad. Senator John McCain and producers of the commercial call Bill Daley ‘a lobbyist,’ while Jones is placed under an ethical cloud. Rezko is dubbed Obama’s “money man” and other inferences include suggestions that Blagojevich has a legacy of federal and state investigations. Because of the associations, the ad concludes that Obama is unfit to lead as president.
But according to Factcheck.org, the details of the ad are more misleading than truthful. While Blagojevich has been plagued with scandals, it has not impacted his job as governor. In fact, Obama has worked on ethics legislation as a result of Blagojevich’s actions in this area. Jones may be considered “Obama’s godfather,” but during their political careers, neither Jones nor Bill Daley for that matter, have ever been tied to any serious corruption or misdeeds. Moreover, Daley is not Obama’s only economic advisor and according to reports, has never been lobbyist. Additionally, Obama severed his ties with the controversial real estate developer after Rezko was indicted for money fraud. In fact, Obama gave nearly $150,000 in contributions to charity that he received from Rezko, his employees, his associates and his family during Obama’s House and Senate Campaigns. Novak said politicians indulge in negative campaigning at any given cost because it works. But voters need to “really work to do the research,” she said and to try to understand what’s the truth and what’s not. Accepting everything for “face value” is never is a good way to stay informed. “People can do with it what they will, but at least the information is out there,” she said.
Jay Paul Deratany, a Chicago attorney, is also working to bring transparency to the records of Chicago politicians. Deratany, along with Mike Foucher, an independent political consultant, recently launched Cloutwiki.org, a new web site that seeks to inform voters about the history of Chicago and Cook County politicians’ records and backgrounds. The site is modeled after another online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.org and the creators encourage participation from the public. Currently, it includes an assortment of facts and history about Chicago aldermen, Cook County Board commissioners, and U.S. Congressman. Deratany said the group is still working on updating information. “A lot of voters don’t know about the history of some of the Chicago politicians,” he said, but publishing facts on the site will help shed light on the situation. Plans are underway to expand the site’s reach with input from readers. “We’re adding and changing things. It’s going to be an ongoing process. We want to be an interactive site so that people can add corrections,” and or enter their own viewpoints he said.