Monday, February 1, 2010


I'm sure you all remember the "Swift Boat" ads run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group mostly funded by the largest Republican campaign donor in Texas. Their mission was to sink Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, which they pretty much did. Or were an integral part of his sinking.

If you don't remember the details of the Swifties controversial allegations, here's a link to the Annenberg Foundation's's summation of them.

The term "swift-boating" has since passed into American political parlance, to mean tactics that essentially stoop to smear campaigning. The point of swift boating is simply to attack, not to attack truthfully.

More recently famous, and of longer-lasting, legally entrenched impact, is what many see as the "swift-boating" of Hillary Clinton, through Hillary the Movie.

Hillary the Movie was put together by Citizens United
"an organization [according to its website] dedicated to restoring our government to citizens' control. Through a combination of education, advocacy, and grass roots organization, Citizens United seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security. Citizens United's goal is to restore the founding fathers' vision of a free nation, guided by the honesty, common sense, and good will of its citizens."
Whether or not Citizens United is an organization dedicated to telling the truth continues to be very much a matter for debate. As does whether or not the Swift Boaters were dedicated to telling the truth. In these attack ads, the truth is not the point; the attack is its own point. And, thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, such controversial ads may now legally be funded and distributed anytime during the American election process by corporations and unions, as well as by Political Action Committees such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

To me, the penultimately distressing part of this situation is that not only do a lot of political ads not wish to tell the truth, there's also no legal compulsion for them to do so.  This came to me from Dr. Roger Soenksen, a JMU Professor who knows a lot about media law:
"The law truly protects political speech.  The FCC gives no power to fact check to TV/radio.  If they sell political commercials, they must run them uncensored.  They can only refuse ads due to poor technical quality.

Political ads are protected by libel laws [and] . . . the litigation process would require that the groups that pulled the ad together acted with 'actual malice' or 'reckless disregard for the truth.'  Attack ads pride themselves on exaggeration and are protected under the law."
What worries me most, however, is why such dubiously-sourced advertisements are effective. Whether we're for or against the candidate or issue these ads attack, we seem generally titillated by their existence, as though it's okay to make our election about generating emotions, rather than accurate information.

I'm worried we pay less and less attention to platforms, proposed programs, nuanced arguments, because it's just more fun to wade in and start slinging (or parrying) the mud.

I'm worried we increasingly expect the election process to entertain rather than inform us. I mean, I do have friends who think Rush Limbaugh lies, but listen to him anyway because they think he's funny.

No matter what the Supreme Court says, no matter what corporate America funds, our decisions on whom to vote for remain our own. The truth is that attack ads only matter if we pay attention to them. It's each of us as individuals who must to decide whether or not to degrade our vote by being too lazy to sort out the truth from the blare.

1 comment:

  1. Citizens United and Swiftboat Veterans for Truth were groups formed for political purposes -- a phenomenon I haven't thought too much about in considering the impact of the Supreme Court's decision. In this context, the free speech argument seems more plausible to me, despicable message aside. It's the idea that any big and rich corporation, national or multi-national, may use funds from its treasury to launch political attack ads and that political candidates can be bought with corporate money that seems so evil to me.

    And I don't understand the logic b/c big business shouldn't be involved in politics -- the people should be. Whose voice is represented by a corporation? Certainly not the majority of shareholders (as opposed to the majority shareholder), and certainly not that of the workforce. What on earth can be the justification for allowing money -- without any acknowledged person or human responsibility behind it -- to speak in the political process?