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INTERVIEW WITH KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (part3)


Q: Isn't it also a first amendment issue?

JAMIESON: Here's the problem. If you say that is protected speech, and I agree that it is, there are two things that are problematic. The first is, we don't get to elect the people who put forward that message. So since time on television is finite, there's only so much that you can buy, if the issue groups buy more time than the candidates do, the dominant voice that you hear may not be the candidate's voice. And you need to elect the candidate.

You can't, as an option, say I'm going to elect the coalition or the AFL-CIO. So the first problem is that in exercising this free speech, they might, in fact, become the dominant voice, drowning out the candidate and making it more difficult for you to know who you're electing and not electing.

There's a second problem. When people judge communication, they factor the source into their judgement. And so it makes a difference if an ad is brought to you by, for example, the Catholic Church or if it's brought to you by a national right-to-life group, or if it's brought to you by the Sierra Club, or if it's brought to you by the Republican Party. And so the same message will be interpreted differently depending on what you know about the motives of the source.

Because the issue ads do not have to disclose who is sponsoring them, and because their disclaimers don't have to indicate who they actually are, it is possible to put forward messages without the information that would help people judge whether or not they want to accept them. It becomes an unaccountable form of free first amendment speech. And that's problematic.


Q: They have names like Citizens for a Better Government...

JAMIESON: During the health care reform debate--which was not in an electoral context, and as a result is far less problematic because you're not having issue ads drowning out a candidate's voice--we made a list of the names of the issue-advocacy groups that were identified at the ends of the ads. And we had thirteen of them that none of us could reasonably identify. In fact in some cases, names that looked so much alike that they were indistinguishable for practical purposes, were representing the views of people who were ideologically on the exact opposite ends of the political spectrum. In some cases, a group that was actually a front for the insurance industry was looking as if it was a group that was just representing everybody who cares about health care. Another group that was actually representing doctors was looking as if it was just a group that cares about everybody in health care.

Well, it makes a difference if you think the message is coming to you from doctors or from the insurance industry or if it's coming from a single-payer advocacy group. And so the ability to judge a message is minimized when you can't tell from the disclaimer at the end of the ad who these people really are.


Q: Talk to me a little bit about California and what you gleaned from that. Is it the year of the politician? Is it the year when government is no longer a dirty word?

JAMIESON: You know we had a long period of time with the Republicans out of power, in fact forty years, in which the Republicans had as their mantra that experience in government and being in power was corrupt and if they just took power everything was going to be better and different.

Now that we have divided government, that appeal has lost it's resonance because the Republicans don't want to claim it, they've got the Congress. Democrats don't want to claim it, they've got the White House. And we also, I think out of the gridlock of the first session of the 104th Congress, came to understand the importance of people in government being active. And having experience in a context that lets them accomplish social change. And so this year we are seeing a revival of what was standard political claim-making prior to that long run of anti-establishment politics. And politicians are arguing that they are experienced.

The interesting claim in California, however, isn't simply that the candidate who wins is experienced, but that it's experience that money can't buy. Because the implication is that first, he's not bought and paid for, but secondly, that the candidate who's spending a lot of money in the race has actually purchased access to the electorate and doesn't have the standing to really be there. And that's an interesting claim in an environment in which we're debating campaign finance reform. And putting those together is something that apparently hasn't happened.

The other thing that's interesting about the California race is that it reminds us that when you've got multiple candidates in a race, the dynamic of the race changes. If you only have two contenders, then when one person attacks the other person there's no possible third beneficiary. But when you've got multiple candidates, one candidate can attack another, hurt the person who is attacked, hurt himself for attacking, and a third candidate who hasn't been attacked or counter-attacked can gain from the fact that those candidates are now identified as engaging in a kind of destructive politics. And Gray Davis was the beneficiary of an attack war among the other candidates. In effect, he became the nominee of his party because until too late in the game the other candidates didn't recognize that he was worthy of attack.


Q: Now, about the project that you're now involved with along with Paul Taylor in the Alliance for Better Campaigns: What small steps do you hope will happen, particularly as it relates to advertising? Is it the "Stand By Your Ad" idea? Is it the Minnesota Compact idea? What are your hopes for what could be accomplished this fall?

JAMIESON: The Alliance for Better Campaigns is attempting to bring together citizen groups in various states on the model adopted in Minnesota in 1996 to try to create a different electoral climate. And so through a partnership agreement with the so-called good government groups and all the individuals in a community who care about the community. So the business groups, in Minnesota it's the Minnesota Meeting, the League of Women Voters, the Chambers of Commerce, those people who have a vested interest in making sure democracy works, are being invited to join together to say we want a higher level of politics this time. And specifically that we'd like to see the broadcasters provide some alternative forums to view candidates. Mini-debates, for example, have been suggested. The small moments that don't take up two hours of your evening and require that you reschedule your life, but will nonetheless give you some chance to see the candidates agreeing and disagreeing on issues. Free time where the broadcasters will offer it, so that the candidates will have the chance to speak in their own voice. Broadcasters and newspapers that will ad-watch, so they will help tell consumers where the ads are over the line, and more importantly, will signal to the politicians that they are going to be held accountable. One of the things that we know is that when politicians know that there's going to be high level of ad-watching, they're much more careful in their ads. So by virtue of signalling that it's going to happen, you actually minimize the problem that ad-watching is trying to address.

The Alliance is also asking newspapers and broadcasters to try to minimize their focus on the game and the tactics and the strategy and increase their focus on the substantive differences and similarities between the candidates. It's asking the candidates to accept debate and debate frequently, to debate in different formats to try to attract audiences, and also to encourage broadcast and print reporters to remind us of the timing of the debates, to give us access to them by rebroadcasting debates and reprinting debates and to tell us when they're happening and what's important about them. When they did happen and what they did do. And afterwards, what was learned and what is still on the issue.

So the Alliance is a complex enterprise which is trying to create a more energized community which will ask for a high level of campaigning from candidates and one hopes in return, a more informed electorate.


Q: Alex Castellanos, as you might guess took a dim view of some of this, although he's obviously participating in it along with Bob Squier. In his view, some of it, at least, is so much political blandness forced down the throats by all the good government types.

JAMIESON: There's always the danger that people will perceive the good government and the academic community as wanting to require the electorate to be locked up in a room and not fed or given water until it's read the New York Times and watched "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer" and watched "Nightline" and, read the candidates' position papers and watched all the debates. That's not the goal of this as a project although there are moments in which I don't think it's the world's worst idea.

But the goal, instead of suggesting that politics is a torture chamber into which we should inject the electorate against its will, is to suggest that politics is indispensable to our functioning as a democracy. And that it works better in some circumstances than it does in others. And it works better if there are debates than if there aren't debates which doesn't mean that everybody's going to want to watch debates. It's possible that you get what you need and you decide you don't need to watch the debate, you've made your decision. But those people who need the debate should have access to the debate.

It's better if you have ad-watches than if you don't. If they're good ad-watches, they focus on accuracy. Among other things, that increases campaign accountability.

It's better if the reporters spend less time making us political consultants and more time helping us become educated voters. None of that means that everyone will benefit from all of these things or wants to or even needs to. But rather that one needs to have that mix of things in order to assure that those who want that information in that form are able to get it.

One of the characteristics of contemporary politics is that the consultants try to increase the level of control that the candidates have over every possible environment. And, the by product of that control can be a kind of campaigning that turns voters off. One of the reasons for recommending all of these alternative moves is that it creates a climate in which the electorate is more likely to be able to see what's at stake in an election. And be able, as a result, to expect the candidates to provide the information that is useful in making an informed voting decision.

One of the problems, as one looks at the contemporary political climate is that there is a pervasive sense of cynicism. And you see it almost every time you pick up a press report or you watch a news outlet. And it is passed over to a public assumption that most candidates lie most of the time, they pander most of the time. That campaigns aren't worth while, they're not about things that matter. None of those things are true.

Part of this effort is an attempt to say that kind of cynicism isn't warranted. And we as an electorate have some obligation to be engaged in the process that encourages a higher level of campaigning without saying that what we currently have is something we ought to be ashamed about. It's not. What we currently have is pretty good. It could be better and that's what the effort is about.


Q: Is there also a need then for ad-watching of issue ad spots, because we don't tend to do that much?

JAMIESON: We are still in the process of seeing ads that are trying to deflect Congressional concern from taxing the tobacco industry. There has been no serious ad-watching of any of the ads on either side of the tobacco issue. Journalists have become accustomed to the notion that they should do some ad-watching in political campaigns, it isn't universal. And there's more in print than in broadcast in most markets. They've become accustomed to the notion that the electorate can, can be helped by having ad-watching in political campaigns. Journalists have not accepted the notion that the public can be helped by making sense of issue advocacy ads.

Part of the problem for reporters is they are hard to find. The skillful issue advocates air in Washington and New York when they want reporters attention and outside Washington and New York when they don't want reporters attention. It's difficult to find the ads. And so they're not on the reporters radar screen.

Secondly, it's difficult for reporters to get the information because there's no required disclosure and no indication of who's funding to indicate how much money is being spent or where the ads are being aired. So if one wants to engage in issue advocacy without any accountability, one can in fact do it. That makes it very hard for reporters. We have a need for, for ad-watching of issue advocacy, in fact a greater need than for ad-watching of candidate advocacy. Because with candidate advocacy you know who the sponsor is, the disclaimer is there and you're in an election context and so you have a reason to believe that this is about your vote. Issue advocacy doesn't necessarily occur in an election context. And you don't necessarily have an idea of who is speaking to you. And as a result you need more journalistic help.


Q: On the Stand By Your Ad thing, for a moment more, Castellanos would make the argument that that isn't necessarily the fairest test. Because there is truth, he gives the example that the truest thing about Bob Dole is not seeing Bob Dole on camera it's the little cigar box in which he keeps the first money that was raised by the citizens of Russell, Kansas to help him rehabilitate after his war injuries. That there are other ways of conveying truth about a candidate than just a talking head.

JAMIESON: There are ways to communicate the truth about a candidate other than a talking head which is why we have advertising. And why consultants in advertising can use any strategy that is available to communicate what they see as that truth. However, a person who is elected to public office, particularly someone who is going to be the President, has got to be able to communicate to camera, to the nation, in times of crisis. Has got to be able to communicate to the people, through the Congress, in a state of the union address. Has got to be able to communicate to foreign audiences on trips abroad. If that person cannot sit in front of a camera and deliver a coherent message in thirty or sixty seconds, about why he wants to be president, he's demonstrating that in one facet of what is expected of a president the person is not able to meet the test.

So at some point in a campaign it becomes very important that in some form, candidates speak to the electorate. Because we need to assess whether, for example, when the Challenger shuttle blows up, we have someone in office who is capable, in that moment, of providing reassurance to the nation.


Q: What did you make of the Pew poll recently on consultants? There were a couple of startling things. One of them was that almost half felt that they had worked to elect a candidate at one point or other who turned out to be someone they weren't so sure ought to be in elective office. That the quality of candidates was getting worse, that the quality of journalism is getting worse, so forth and so on. What did that tell you, or did it tell you anything about the nature of political consultants?

JAMIESON: What the Pew survey of political consultants said to me was that consultants are as cynical as the rest of us. And I think that's unfortunate. Most of the consultants I know work for candidates they believe in. Now everyone is disappointed in someone else at some point in their lives. But most of the candidates I know who have been elected most of the time have been true to what they said they were going to do. They've tried, at least, to accomplish that issue agenda. They've been reasonably faithful to the ideology that you expected them to adhere to. So I read those results and said, well, they've elected so many people that of course someplace across that vast number there's going to be somebody who has disappointed them.

But that doesn't mean we should generalize and say that on a routine basis, most of the time they're electing people that they then don't think in office deserve to be accountable to the American people.

I think that the most important thing to say about that poll is I don't believe consultants are that cynical about the people who they elect. I think what the questions elicited was the exception and not the rule.


Q: What would you really like to not see in ads anymore. Whether it's the scene of the candidate patting the head of the seven year-old in front of a chalk board or whatever. What would you really like to not see anymore?

JAMIESON: What I would like to not see in political advertising is the closing frame of the ad with the disclaimer on the bottom of the screen required by law with so much distraction on the screen that you will not reasonably focus on it. I think it's very important for audiences to know who is bring us messages, particularly when the ad is an attack message.

So my wish would be when the candidate makes the decision to only attack in an ad, that the candidates disclaimer at the end be sufficiently clear that I can say I know who produced that ad, I know who the candidate is. If I don't like the ad I know who to hold accountable.

  Kathleen Hall Jamieson
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