Saying It Doesn't Make It So

11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brian Ross Managing Editor, and pioneering ezine editor of the first sports ezine, MLNSports

There is a rule well known by preschoolers that does not seem to apply to politicians or major media outlets:

Just because you say it, it doesn't make it true.

Our truth in advertising laws on the books need enforcement. Government agencies can warn and fine companies when they make false and misleading claims about everything from beer to tooth paste, but somehow we don't feel compelled to regulate political ads, or the claims that news organizations make in an advertising/promotional form?

Negative ads that are based on unfounded charges go away if they aren't legal. If we apply the same proof standards that we use for Viagra to vitriol, then at least the Lee Attwater/Karl Rove school of smear first, fact-check later is not what the public is being delivered.

To have an informed population, they have to be getting information. Too often, as with the Ayers smear, or the ACORN attack, operatives for John McCain merely have to put out the idea, and let it take seed.

Gayle Quinnell told a guerrilla "reporter" after her now-famous "Obama is an Arab" statement at a McCain rally that she reacted to all of the information coming under her nose as a McCain volunteer by going down to Kinkos and copying hundreds of letters that she sent off to other people whom she knew to spread the word that Obama was a seditious fellow-traveler with ties to the Middle East who could not be trusted.

The problem is that the people whom Ms. Quinnell should not trust, the folks who spread that kind of misinformation, are exactly the ones that she is trusting for her information.

When a company distorts facts to promote a product to such an extreme, it can be called fraud. When a campaign does the same, we call it politics, and not voter fraud. Why?

Likewise, when Fox News calls itself "Fair and Balanced," it would seem to be a deceptive advertising practice. Fair is an arguable buzzword that is hard to pin down, but "balanced" is another matter.

It suggests an even hand, and accuracy. In the news business, fact-checking and accuracy are keys to good journalism. Dan Rather had his career derailed at CBS because his staff was suckered into running with what turned out to be a false report on George W. Bush's tenure in the National Guard.

No such standard exists for those pundits at Fox News. From Sean Hannity, who puts on avowed anti-Semite Hal Turner and tries to pass him off as a more generic expert , to the smaller fry, like Major Garrett, whose "Bourbon Room" blog on the economy takes a sudden detour into the ACORN accusations to try and connect the dots between fear of the economy and the voter fraud smear that is being espoused by McCain supporters at Fox.

"Obama also doesn't oppose the striking of funds in the rescue bill that could have been funneled to housing advocates and other community organizations such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). A senior adviser said Obama "supports the housing provisions that are in the bill," but declined repeated attempts by The Bourbon Room to find out if Obama tried to protect the money that might have gone to ACORN or other groups. If he did, he failed. If he didn't, ACORN knows it by now."

CNN is "Keeping them Honest," but who keeps them honest? They elected to miss the protest against Governor Palin in Alaska by people who felt that she doesn't represent the state or their point of view shortly after her nomination by McCain as his running-mate.

When the race showed danger signs of pushing back McCain, who is favored by the Fox News viewers that CNN has been courting, they placed more inexperienced pundits on the air and kept veterans with more decided opinions like James Carville off to keep the spin moving in favor of bigger ratings and lining their pockets with more advertising dollars from the campaigns.

What's in a name? Plenty. Sirius radio calls their Right-Wing channel "Patriot" radio, to imply that you must be a right-winger to love your country.

People vote far more on symbolism than fact. As the last few weeks have brought into critical focus, if you put disinformation out there as if it had credibility, it will be treated by the public as if it were real.

I have no problem with an attack ad, as long as they stick to what is factual and provable, and don't string together loose associations of ideas to form a smear. The same folks who check the validity of television ads for everything else can't take on political ads? No one in the Justice Department can tell Fox News to either live up to their advertising, or take it down? Apparently not when the party in power agrees with Mr. Murdoch and his spin machine that poses as a news outlet.

The decisions that voters make are critical to the future success of the nation. We have equal access laws that govern how the media can handle candidates to try and keep the playing field level. If we want a well-informed electorate, rather than a well-manipulated voter base, then keeping the candidates to the truth about events and requiring media outlets that claim a lack of bias to live up to those advertising slogans does not seem to be a big infringement on their free speech.

McCain. Tooth paste. In the world of mass media promotion, the rules should be the same.