Listen To What They’re Not Saying

Millions of people each election cycle are swayed by news clips and TV ads to vote for a particular candidate. To be honest, it’s not easy to do any hard research these days because the candidates for the top offices are all “handled.” I don’t know if they themselves hire these people or if the political parties foist them upon their representatives.

Regardless, the result is that very little gets said outside the approved lines written for stump speeches. I suspect this is why third party candidates seem so refreshing to voters. They actually answer questions put to them, and they don’t sound like bad actors parroting lines someone else handed them.

On top of the canned content, however, we are battered with attack ads telling us why we should not vote for the other guy. Those, and the articles in the newspaper or the news blurbs on TV, are the ones we need to deconstruct so we aren’t influenced by false impressions.

Yes, we need to be especially wary about news outlets. The negative ads come to us, telling us their bias. The news media, however, comes to us purporting to be fair and balanced. The truth is, people write the news stories—people with preferences. In every story, the writer gets to pick and choose from a collection of facts he has researched. Some of those facts can show a candidate in a favorable light, and some may have the opposite effect.

Take, for example, the California race for governor between former governor and present attorney general Jerry Brown and former eBay executive Meg Whitman. Not once have I seen a story about Attorney General Brown’s refusal to back the people in the court case attempting to overturn the twice-passed definition of marriage. To point out his insistence on governing by his own beliefs while ignoring the will of the people would cast him in a bad light. So we don’t read a story about this very news-worthy fact.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read or heard a single news story about Meg Whitman that doesn’t tell how much money she has spent on the campaign. News worthy? Perhaps. But it could be written in a way that commends her as someone so committed to the state of California she is willing to spend her own dollars. Instead the stories seem to play neatly into the hands of the attack ads that suggest she is trying to buy the election.

Recognizing story slants is important in order to protect ourselves from their influence. As soon as a propaganda technique is unmasked it becomes harmless. We can sit back and say, Oh, look, they’re trying to make him look xxx by saying yyy. At that point we can ask, Is he really xxx?

Another technique to watch for are the ugly pictures—the opponent captured with an angry expression on her face, on a bad hair day, or with her mouth open. Without saying a word, those ads or news clips can characterize a candidate as easily angered, slovenly, or a little dim-witted.

Watch, too, for things like black and white pictures that have a bleak feel versus sharp, clear, bright color pictures that give a more hopeful tone. Similarly, pay attention to settings. We have one showing the candidate talking about environmental issues with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean as the back drop. It reinforces the message silently.

Association is another trick. Senator Barbara Boxer is a master at this. She reminds voters at every turn (and the media plays the clips to prove it) that her opponent, Carly Fiorina, was endorsed by Sarah Palin. But she goes further. Because Ms. Fiorina has taken a position for a certain proposition that would ease some of the environmental regulations imposed on small businesses until the economy is healthier, Ms. Boxer says her opponent is in the pocket of out of state oil companies (which have helped finance the ads in favor of the proposition). Guilt by associate, even if there is none.

As I said yesterday, I believe voting is a civic duty, one a Christian should embrace, but I also think we should be as informed as possible. Attack ads aren’t worthless in our quest for knowledge about candidates as long as we pay equal attention to the silent part of their message.

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. I would vote for anyone that was up against Barbara Boxer, and to me if Fiorina is endorsed by Sarah Palin then that’s a big plus.

    Tossing It Out


  2. All you have to do is what we did in Australia: elect a whole slab of independents so that neither of the big two parties can govern in their own right. It’s easier to do in the senate, which is based on the whole state. But we also managed to do it in the House of Reps, which are local based electorates.

    Large establishe political parties are now run by and for members of the party machine. But enough people are starting to see that and are willing to support someone else. The media certainly helps by quoting short soundbites. Then you actually get to hear the party members all parroting the same lines they have been fed in their daily briefings.


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