Double oxymoron: Truth in political advertising


Expanded from the 10-15-00 Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

I didn't think it could happen to a political junkie like me. I normally don't flee to commercial-free American Movie Classics until early November, especially on election night.

Last week I hit early overload and bailed out.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the 1944 Ray Milland haunted house classic "The Uninvited" for the first time since I was 10 years old.

I did so because uninviteds have become unbearable.

I don't mind political ads which make legitimate contrasts between records and positions. That's just part of a good fight.

Rapid-fire, mindless, unsupported assertions that the other guy is a liar made me hit the mental reset button and my TV remote in quick succession.

The best example is the U.S. Senate race between former Rep. John Ensign, R-Las Vegas, and Democratic challenger Ed Bernstein.

On abortion, their differences are quite clear: Ensign's for making it illegal, Bernstein is pro-choice. The issue has taken Bernstein from laughable longshot to legitimate contender.

Two years ago, Ensign carried the female vote by one percentage point over Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Both are both anti-choice and chose the hide the fact from the voters. Exit polls showed that most women made the erroneous assumption that both were pro-choice and split their votes accordingly.

Conceding the issue almost cost Reid his seat and stands to elect Bernstein next month.

Bernstein's campaign made the amateurish mistake of not quoting verbatim Ensign's response to a TV call-in question as to whether or not he favored abortion for an 11 year-old rape victim.

Several newspaper editorials called Bernstein's spots a lie. Ensign's campaign manager, Peter Ernaut, the dirtiest fighter in Nevada follytix, quickly turned the editorials into commercials calling Bernstein a liar. But Snidely Ernaut committed the typical sin of omission by totally failing to state Ensign's position on abortion.

Ernaut, who wielded the chief of staff's hatchet as Snidely Whiplash to Gov. Kenny Guinn's Dudley Do-Right, can be expected to litter the landscape with disgusting mailers and more TV clutter from now through Nov. 7.

A campaign put on the defensive which can successfully fuzz the edges of its most vulnerable position can usually rebound, especially if it can outspend the attacking opponent.

Should Ensign win, it will happen because he will have grossly outspent Bernstein. But Bernstein opened the door when he didn't have to.

SIGN OF THE SLIMES. Ensign's tactics pale by comparison to those of local billboard companies.

Facing an innocuous initiative petition to limit proliferation, industry attempts to fight a grassroots group border on the farcical.

The billboard boys are running TV spots which call the Reno-only initiative an outright ban. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It only proposes to limit billboards within Reno at their current density, 278. Even if it should pass, the Reno City Council can change it any time thereafter.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Ed Reed ruled Reno's current billboard ordinance unconstitutional, opening the floodgates to construction applications from now until election day. Many will result in new builds, breaking the 300 barrier.

The industry has already won, so why insult us with misleading TV? The outdoor companies apparently have no faith in the power of their own medium. No billboards are being used to fight the initiative.

Their campaign literature falls back on all the tired code words fatcats employ when trying to seem afflicted.

They state "Reno small businesses would be hurt by a billboard ban," when their largest clients are rich casinos.

They say "local non-profit organizations would be hurt...Area billboard companies donate more than a quarter-million dollars annually in free billboard space."

Not true. Any charity wanting space must pay for production and installation. The outdoor companies are out zero.

Actually, they're ahead of the game. Charities provide them with paper to cover the messages of poster campaigns which have become obsolete, such as politicals which really grind on people if allowed to stand long after an election. Many commercial advertisers want their ads covered immediately because the campaign has expired.

Without the no-cost non-profit organization ads, the outdoor companies would be out cold, hard cash to come up with something to cover out-dated material.

They also get to use their freebie public service to defend themselves against regulation.

In touting its billboard benevolence, the industry used the names of many charitable organizations without permission, potentially jeopardizing their non-profit, tax exempt status. The charities were loathe to make any comment. They had to fear offending both a rich and powerful industry as well as the Internal Revenue Service. The non-profits ended up publicly disclaiming the heavy-handed billboard company tactics.

Other industry defenses are laughable: "A possible loss of 5,000 jobs." I defy them to prove we will lose the equivalent of two Reno Hiltons, creating an instant depression.

"If billboards are banned through a ballot initiative, what's next?" they ask, then check off used car dealers, fast food and "small corner businesses."

No need to worry about the latter. Wal-Mart will eliminate most of those quite soon.

Now, an initiative to ban big box retail predators which actually do kill small local businesses, that's another story.

Wonder if I could get free billboard space for that?

(Editor's note: Bernstein's momentum was stopped by Ensign's strategy of fuzzing out the abortion difference and Ensign was elected. The billboard limitation initiative, despite being outspent by well over $100,000 vs. about $3,000, passed comfortably and is now the law of the City of Reno.)

Be well. Raise hell.

NevadaLabor.com | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano,a 32-year Nevadan, is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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