15 Sep 2008 1 pm eastern

A modest proposal

It is illegal to make false claims in a TV or radio commercial unless you are running for political office.

If you’re selling toothpaste, your claims must be vetted by legal and medical professionals. But not if you’re selling a candidate.

If you’re selling a candidate, not only can you lie about his record, but more to the point, you can lie about his opponent.

These lies are seen and heard by millions, not only when they run as paid advertisements, but also when they are run again for free on 24-hour news networks hungry for controversy. And after they are run for free, they become talking points in an “unbiased” conversation that pretends there are two sides to every story, even when one side is lies. Two words: Swift Boat.

Lies, and a candidate’s embarrassing efforts to brush them aside, fill the news cycle and constitute the national discourse. And this terrifying and morally indefensible rupture from reality persists even when the country is on its knees.

If networks refuse to accept cigarette advertising, how can they readily approve dishonest political advertising? Cigarettes kill individuals, but lying political ads hurt the whole country. No democracy can afford this, let alone when the country is at war, and under existential threat from terrorists, and in economic free fall.

So here’s my idea. One that could actually work, if America’s networks remember they are Americans first, revenue seekers second.

Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated. If you run a political ad that proves to be a lie, your network will pay a steep fine, and the advertiser will pay an even steeper one.

To avoid these crushing fines, networks will insist on proof of statements made in political advertisements, just as they demand proof of statements made in sugarless chewing gum commercials.

Political advertisers will not be able to lie about opponents. They will either have to attack opponents honestly, or talk about the actual issues facing the country, and how their candidate will solve those issues.

Imagine. We might hear ads about the banking crisis and how each candidate will address it.

Candidates might summarize their positions on Iraq and Afghanistan and end with links to more detailed positions on their websites.

The public might discuss the real issues facing us instead of manufactured Entertainment-Tonight-style “controversies.” People might even vote for candidates based on their resumes and positions on the issues.

It would be just like democracy.

[tags]advertising, political, political advertising, lies, TV, radio, politics, presidential[/tags]

Filed under: Advertising, democracy, Design, Election, engagement

144 Responses to “A modest proposal”

  1. Pandemic! said on

    The most horrifying aspect of false advertising in politics is the willingness of the American public to whole-heartedly accept these claims without even thinking twice. It\’s unfortunate that a large number of voting Americans don\’t do any follow up reading on ridiculous claims from a desperate, ailing political party trying their best to stick around for another 4 years.

  2. Ricky Irvine said on

    Revolutionary!

  3. JR said on

    If only American democracy were as rational and neutral an institution as you and your average educated citizen are.

    One problem to get around is that commercials selling a product can be scientifically proven to have falsities *that harm the public regardless of age, sex, political bias*. How do you scientifically prove that lying about a candidate is harmful to everyone? (I”m sure someone can figure this out).

    And let’s carry this one step further: Have news organizations fact-check white house statements the AP publishes as journalism. Journalism that is populated as truth to the thousands of smaller, local outlets that depend on the AP for their reports. Did you know that the Iraq war is going exactly as planned?

    One day TV as we know it will be dead and this won’t matter as much. Lies will be aired but there will be a discussion attached that the public can read/watch listen to that will balance things out. And most of these comments will be: “d00d ur so gay.”

  4. Greg said on

    Make sure to apply that law equally on both sides. It’s not quite as one sided as you’d like to portray.

  5. Ryan said on

    Well said and right on target.

  6. Dave Simon said on

    Jeffrey -

    Simply put, one man’s lie is another man’s truth in these things. Unfortunately.

    If Senators were required to vote on things ala carte instead of in omnibus bills, then I’d believe the “he voted FOR killing children, puppies and old people” lines. But, most of the time, these votes were on first reading of a gigantic bill that for the majority, was good, but there was something stupid in it.

    Also, Senators/Reps should have to vote. No “present” votes. Yes or no. It’s your job to make decisions!

    But it is our job as citizens, to research and find out where the truth lies. You can’t legislate truth telling.

  7. William Woody said on

    I assume the ads would be vetted by the same news organizations who also report the news–which begs the question who will fact check the fact checkers? Meaning one of the biggest accusations being thrown around this election cycle is bias and lies being promulgated by the press–and if they are the “fact checkers”, doesn’t it just shift more overall power to the press?

    Worse, there are a number of whisper campaigns taking place–like the whisper campaign that Obama is secretly a Muslim, which is an obvious outright lie. All this would do is create an environment where more whisper campaigns would take place.

    Politics is a full contact sport–and I don’t think there is anything that can be done about it.

  8. Matt said on

    But if we can (and do) legislate truth-telling in product advertisements –even if it’s often with a tiny “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA” at the bottom of the screen– then surely there can be some objective legislation of political lies. And of course it has to apply equally to both sides. It’s as outrageous to hear people say “McCain wants to be at war in Iraq for 100 years” as it is to hear people say “Obama wants to teach sex in kindergarten.” Both are misrepresentations of their views and cheapen the political discourse overall.

  9. Donnie said on

    Dave mentioned, “one man’s lie is another man’s truth.” The truth, however, is actually absolute. The problem is when you expose only certain truths and not others reality becomes distorted, and there is no way to legislate against telling some truths and not others.

    Mandating truth telling is not the way to do it. You have to put faith in democracy and hope that the American people, at the end of the day, can see through the political bull shit and vote based on real issues.

    I feel that the American public is smart enough to rise above the child-like politics of certain campaigns, and not base their votes on comments/actions taken wildly out of context. But, perhaps I am too optimistic.

  10. Greg said on

    The folks at factcheck.org, whoever they are, seem to have a good handle on *being reasonable*. Maybe we CNN could hire a few of those good folks. Who am I kidding.

  11. Glenn said on

    Unfortunately this has zero chance of working. Putting country before revenue is tough. But for the networks to become politically neutral is impossible. They are so biased that you need to watch the BBC to get a real unbiased perspective on things.

    I love this country and want to turn it around. The only thing I think will actually work is to not re-elect any senator, congressman and governor. They did absolutely nothing while Bush administration (whom I voted for – sorry) trashed the country with war and pissed all over the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    Throw out the powers that be and start fresh. Vote people into office that care about more then their self interests and we can make this country great again.

    Who is our next Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Adams? Can there be a next great president the way the system is run now?

  12. Charlie Levenson said on

    “…Americans first, revenue seekers second.”

    Well, there’s the flaw. These are CORPORATIONS, and in most cases, TRANS-NATIONAL CORPORATIONS and have no particular interest or concern for the United States of America, or the democratic republic it once was.

    Good idea, a decade too late. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 pretty much killed us. (BTW, thanks Bill Clinton.)

  13. interested said on

    without being so punitive: if an Ad is proven to be false, the networks should stop airing it without refunding the time slots purchased.

  14. nickd said on

    I have to wonder if this will simply push the dirtiest of political advertising onto YouTube, where you presumably wouldn’t have to get your ad approved. And then all the pundits would talk about the most incendiary and/or untrue bits anyway.

  15. Bob said on

    There is fact, and there is truth, and never the twain shall meet.

  16. Phil said on

    @Donnie;

    Actually, truth *is* relative. Only facts are absolute.

  17. Aaron Powell said on

    How far does this go? Do demonstrably false economic claims count? Stuff like “NAFTA has cause the US to lose X jobs over the last Y years?” I’m not at all thrilled by the notion of anyone deciding what “truth” in campaigning means.

    You have to keep in mind that these campaigns aren’t putting one over on the public. Rather, they’ve giving the public exactly what it wants. Most people simply don’t care about the truth or falsity of specific points of policy because they aren’t interested in learning enough about those policy issues to form a well founded opinion. Economists call this “rational ignorance.” So, instead, we pick the guy who we like, who tells us he believes the same things we do (because what we believe, by nature of the fact that we believe it, is automatically a step or two better than what other people believe, and we’ll be damned if we’ll listen otherwise — call this “confirmation bias”) and we like to hear him beat up on the opposing side.

    Do keep in mind that the First Amendment was mean, first and foremost, to protect political speech. The founders were terrified of a government that could limit political speech for its own ends. And free speech is only ever difficult to support when what’s being said is something you disagree with. Advocate voter education. Don’t advocate limits on speech.

  18. John said on

    Here’s another fact-checking site I heard mentioned this weekend on NPR: PolitiFact, a service of the St. Pete Times and the Congressional Quarterly.

  19. Matt Howell said on

    The truth vs. facts philosophical debate aside… :)

    Facts haven’t been the primary means of advertising in this country for well over 4-5 decades. Once Madison Avenue figured out that emotions are what sell, that’s all it’s been. Even more so in TV commercials, where visual images and such a short timespan lend themselves poorly to any sort of deep or factual discussion.

    It’s in all political parties’ best interests to appeal to the electorate’s emotions, to get them fired up enough to get out and vote on Election Day. A 30-second commercial won’t ever again be a place to recount cool, rational facts. The constraints of the medium just about ensure it.

  20. RamJaw said on

    Just what we need, more regulation of unregulatable problems. I sure as hell don’t want the government regulating what is a lie and what isn’t.

    Most of these lies and mistruths run in political ads are at least on some very basic level, true.

    I don’t know what exact ad you are talking about that made you write this post, but most of the so called lies I’ve heard discussed appealed in a disheartening way to the voter’s emotions. The content of the ad was not dishonest, just disgenuous.

    I think there’s a big difference between the two.

  21. Rock said on

    Strangely enough, I was thinking the exact same thing this weekend. Something needs to be done to AT LEAST stop the worst offenders. Those who claim “it won’t work, so why try?” are useless in this setting. You can’t stonewall until the “works 99.99% of the time” solution comes up, because the damage done is far worse than the extra .01% better you’re trying to wring out of it.

    Others will say the “truth” will be impossible to find, so better not try? If you have good, smart people looking for it, I’m guessing you’ll get us one step out of the morass we’re currently steeped in today. And that’s one foot out of the gutter than we have right now…

  22. daveschumaker.net · Atttacking McCain on his lies said on

    [...] And Jeffrey Zeldman makes this point: [...]

  23. Jason Wall said on

    exactly.

  24. Erin Kissane said on

    As terrible as the situation is now, I wouldn’t trust any media company or group of media companies with the responsibility of deciding what constitutes proof that a political claim is true. Nor would I trust any governmental agency with said responsibility.

    I’m afraid that education is the only way out of this mess.

  25. Neal G said on

    I’d rather just get rid of politicians, or at least the useless two party, vote for the lesser evil system.

  26. uv said on

    Your country is “under existential threat from terrorists”? That’s just false advertising…

  27. Bob said on

    Really? You believe toothpaste adverts?
    You really believe toothpaste is so much more amazing than it was yesterday?

    Advertising is all lies.

  28. Fred said on

    So, like, Obama DOESN’T want sex ed for 5 year olds?

    I’d add that if the press actually did it’s JOB there would be front page articles saying “McCain Campaign is Now Using Lies in Advertisements.” (To the NY Times credit, they have pretty much done this, but other outlets?)

    It’s also interesting to note that the lone voice on the right denouncing the Swift Boat ads WAS McCain!! Perhaps that was before he lost his friggin’ mind.

    Great post!!

  29. Shaz said on

    Also, Senators/Reps should have to vote. No “present” votes. Yes or no. It’s your job to make decisions!

    Um, Senators do have to vote yes or no unless they’re physically absent from the chamber. There isn’t a ‘present’ option in the US Senate.

  30. A Modest Proposal » EricByers.com said on

    [...] Sick of the lying in politics? Jeffrey Zeldman gives us a modest proposal. [...]

  31. Matt V said on

    Even if it *were* illegal, the GOP would just resort to more push-polling like that seen here and here.

  32. Jim Doran said on

    Right on, again.

  33. Serge Lescouarnec said on

    Jeffrey

    I second your motion.

    Might ‘share it’ later today on Serge the Concierge.

    This election will actually be the first time that I am willing and able to vote in the US.

    Serge
    ‘The French Guy from New Jersey’

  34. Dan said on

    Technically, the airwaves are owned by the people and managed by the government on our behalf. There is nothing stopping Congress from passing any number of laws mandating how political advertizing should be handled. (I’d like to see candidates get free air time to discuss and debate real issues instead of blitzing us with short-attention span ads) It’s just that nobody in the electorate gets upset about it enough to push for changes in the law. We are the boiled frog.

  35. John said on

    Watch out for PolitiFact — the St. Pete Times has made some of the most left-leaning editorial statements that I have ever heard. Politifact has some useful observations, but they should probably be taken with a shaker of salt. Somehow they rationalize that Obama has not flip-flopped on his Iraq withdrawal timetable, even though his own web site has contradicted his spoken words.

  36. Geoff said on

    How about a symbol that can appear as a watermark on the bottom of a political ad that indicates that all facts have been checked and vetted through some body like http://www.factcheck.org/ ?

    I think a voluntary effort will be seen as a point of strength. I challenge either candidate to be the first.

  37. G said on

    “So here’s my idea. One that could actually work, if America’s networks remember they are Americans first, revenue seekers second.”

    Heh.

    You have already put succinctly why this idea will never see the light of day.

    It’s a lovely premise, nevertheless.

  38. Bob Monsour said on

    If it were not for your statement…

    “One that could actually work, if America’s networks remember they are Americans first, revenue seekers second.”

    I could be persuaded to have hope. Really, I want to have hope, but these are very very very large businesses, with very very very revenue seeking people at the helm and as owners.

  39. Virginia said on

    Hear! Hear!

    I don’t see it really happening, but it’s a great idea. Imagine–the truth.

  40. Paul Redmond said on

    I love our government’s double standards – it’s OK for us to have nukes but not you, it’s OK for us to invade countries but not you, it’s OK to lie to the American public…sick sick cycle.

    How are we supposed to pick a candidate when 1) we don’t know them personally, and 2) they and their opponents can say anything they want to.

    Sure political ads that lie wont harm you like lying about the side-effects of [insert pill here], but those words elect tyrants that affect the lives of millions. How many have died because of political lies?

  41. Nick said on

    No one could have put it better.

  42. Mister Snitch said on

    You know a great deal about web design, but have a poor grasp of human nature. If “lies” could be discerned and parsed so readily, we’d live in a different world. But lies, and the world we live in, are not like that. We live and breathe in an ocean of half-truths, evasions, whoppers, white lies, misconceptions, assumptions, spin, agendas, points of view, cultural bias, perspective, and innuendo. To not recognize this is to not know – REALLY know – yourself.

    As a people, we can barely agree on instant replay or the designated hitter. What you’re proposing is completely risible. It would break the first time it was tried, assuming of course people could stop laughing long enough to try it.

    I’m squarely with ramjaw, Woody, and a few other perceptive souls here.

    This post says something about the scope of your worldview that’s best left either unexamined, or unsparingly examined. Avoid the middle ground.

  43. Chuckles said on

    Maybe you could start by getting your own facts straight. SImply put, this assertion:

    “Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated.”

    is false. Didn’t happen that way. Re-read your history. The notion that the networks and advertisers got together and decided on their own to forego tobacco revenues is simply laughable.

  44. Weston Y said on

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s sad that we probably won’t ever see it though, the people running the networks need new heads to realize this is a good thing.

  45. Peter Richardson said on

    Allow me to further suggest: lie offsets.

  46. Josh A. said on

    Is this post just intended to point out that they do lie, or is it actually explicitly legal? If so, that’s disgusting. Well, it’s disgusting anyway.

  47. pasquino said on

    My proposal may not be as brilliantly modest as yours, but here goes.

    Once a politician is proven to be lying, the broadcaster, or perhaps the public via some previously set-up interactive software, would be allowed to write abusive words that would appear on the ad that is being broadcast again and again. Words like LIAR and BOGUS and PANTS ON FIRE and HYPOCRITE. Perhaps the usual horns, Pinocchio nose, goggle eyes, satanic beard, lolling tongue, voice balloons, etc. could be added as well.

    Eight years ago a friend of mine began writing voice balloons on $5 bills. Usually they had Lincoln saying things like \”I am ashamed of my party.\” He has changed that to \”McCain is a hypocrite.\” Some of these bills are still in circulation.

  48. Dave said on

    I was just listening to a panel discussion on NPR. In the introduction, the author of Unspun and well-known fact checker Kathleen Hall Jamieson stated that political ads are mostly accurate. The problem fact checkers face is that they don’t discuss accurate claims, leading to the impression that all political ads (and political speeches) are lies. Spin, yes. Lies, not so often as you think.

    The Swift Boat ad aired only ten times. The lipstick on a pig ad was on the web. It’s the coverage you have to go after. Why did the networks spend so much time discussing lipstick on a pig when *everyone* knew what Obama meant? Why aren’t they discussing the implicit sexism in the paternalistic defense of Palin? Why did the networks keep talking about Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth”? It’s the media coverage, as you yourself point out. The networks were granted access to the airwaves on condition that they inform the public with news broadcasts. We need to remind the networks that those mandated news blocks are for informing, not entertaining, the public. Informing us that McCain is taking offense at something Obama didn’t say (and vice versa) isn’t what the press was intended. Not when use of public airwaves was granted. Not when the first amendment was written.

  49. ndelc said on

    This is a great idea. However, as someone said earlier, truth is not an absolute. Only facts are. Keeping track of the facts isn’t always as easy as it seems, especially when candidates need to be able to react quickly with a new ad.

    Instead, I propose a new rule stating that ads may not talk about the other candidate AT ALL. Each candidate is only allowed to talk about what he or she wants to do to solve problems. Get rid of the drama and focus on the issues.

    One last thing. Despite what many believe, BOTH of our current candidates are guilty of blurring the facts in this election.

  50. jdcllns said on

    Now that’s just silly!

  51. Stephen James said on

    Our legal system only works for people that have time on their hands.

  52. Shawn Levasseur said on

    “So here’s my idea. One that could actually work, if America’s networks remember they are Americans first, revenue seekers second.

    Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated. If you run a political ad that proves to be a lie, your network will pay a steep fine, and the advertiser will pay an even steeper one”

    This presumes a monopoly on political communication by the networks. Secondly, the naive that the this system wouldn’t be gamed, that those who run it wouldn’t give their preferred candidates more a pass and be harsher on their opponents.

    Nope, people are just going to have to think for themselves, and their own judgment. Maybe that’s an idea that scares the political pros and the networks alike.

  53. Miles said on

    Even a modest increase in the information-to-lies ratio of politics would be great.

    I’m not sure that selling children as food is a good idea though, with what is now known about transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as CJD.

  54. jdcllns said on

    There’s a great article over at The Washington Post debunking the media’s and Obama’s untruths about the economy. It’s chocked full of facts that can be double checked:

    Barack Obama has frequently used the Depression exaggeration, including during a campaign speech in June, when he said that the “percentage of homes in foreclosure and late mortgage payments is the highest since the Great Depression.” Even if Obama is right that the foreclosure rate is the worst since the Great Depression, it’s spurious to evoke memories of that great national calamity when talking about today — it’s akin to equating a sore throat with stomach cancer.

    Obama is flat-out wrong when he frets on his campaign Web site that “the personal savings rate is now the lowest it’s been since the Great Depression.” The latest rate, for the second quarter of 2008, is 2.6 percent — higher than the 1.9 percent rate that prevailed in the last quarter of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

    I’d like to see more truth like this in political ads!

    See: Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/12/AR2008091202415.html

  55. Douglas Greenshields said on

    I haven’t seen too much chatter on blogs in response to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s suggestion that websites should have a truth(iness?) mark just because, heaven forbid, a few people managed to spread around some hyperbole about the Large Hadron Collider a few days ago. The idea is well-meaning but ultimately rather disappointingly nonsensical as ideas go – quis custodes custodiet, and all that. It’s rather hard to prove an outright lie. Can a lie be the negligent omission of the truth? We all, ultimately, need to be our own bullshit detectors, and shout the truth, our intelligence and our humour loudly, and hope that they weigh heavier than the forces of manipulation.

  56. Dan said on

    The Washington Post editorial linked above is also full of misinformation.

    While GDP may be growing, on average, as quickly as it has since the Great Depression, the problem is the phrase \”on average\”. The average American is not seeing the same return from GDP growth now that he saw from the end of World War 2 through the mid-1970s. The wealthiest Americans (top 1%; top .1%) on the other hand, are seeing far greater returns. Thus wages in the bottom and middle of the economy failing to keep up with inflation, while wages at the top have gone up at a steady rate. This is one of the key reasons that we see growing levels of income inequality in the United States.

    The same bit of analysis can be applied to the savings rate. The average American is not saving. The savings rate, then, is driven by the wealthiest Americans. Again, this is a problem.

    In fact, the level of wealth inequality is the highest today that it\’s been since the Great Depression; reinforcing that certain parts of the American people have been doing well, while those in the middle and bottom struggle.

    So, while certain parts of the American economy are doing fine, the average citizen certainly is not.

    It\’s ironic that an editorial setting us straight on the economy is, in fact, getting quite a lot wrong.

  57. Tom said on

    This post is truly depressing. The people who founded this country, who debated and wrote the Constitution, understood the basic principle that the solution to bad speech is more speech, not less. The reason was not that lies are good, but that the only way to regulate lies is to give extraordinary power to a group of people who could then abuse it. Why would we ever assume that news networks would properly vet political ads? Would you allow, say, Fox News to be part of the vetting process, or would you exclude them?

    You state: “…lying political ads hurt the whole country. No democracy can afford this…” No democracy can afford free speech? This is absurd. In fact, not only can a democracy “afford” people being free to say whatever they want; democracy requires it. And your toothpaste analogy misses the point entirely. Political speech is perhaps the most fundamental liberty we have. Shouldn’t it be the most broad?

    I do not think so much of myself and so little of my fellow Americans that I would presume to be their arbiter of truth. I would appreciate the same modesty from people like Jeffrey Zeldman.

  58. Benjamin Ragheb said on

    “To avoid these crushing fines, networks will insist on proof of statements made in political advertisements, just as they demand proof of statements made in sugarless chewing gum commercials.”

    I’m pretty sure it isn’t the networks that demand this proof. The networks air whatever is given to them. The proof is prepared in case a third party files a lawsuit against the chewing gum manufacturer.

    If you want an analogous system for campaign ads, you probably need to give somebody the power to take a campaign to court for false content in an advertisement. Then the question is whether that system, once subject to abuse of power, is any worse than the current system.

  59. Quinta do Sargaçal – Uma turbina eólica sem turbina + said on

    [...] É ilegal anunciar gato por lebre na rádio e TV, a menos que se concorra à Casa Branca Jeffrey Zeldman. [...]

  60. Eddie Sutton said on

    Fantastic idea and a terrific online discussion. One thought in reflection of all comments on either side of the issue:

    Let’s TRY it!

    Could it hurt? Can’t imagine how it will hurt me.

    Could it help? Yep.

    You don’t know ’til you try!

  61. scutdog said on

    I was expecting satire; your proposal isn\’t Swiftian as implied by your title. Nonetheless the proposal is certainly worthy.

  62. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    No democracy can afford free speech? This is absurd.

    I’m sorry, @Tom, did you just equate paid political advertising with free speech? Really?

    Paid political advertising is not free speech.

    Paid political advertising costs money only special interests of one flavor or another can afford. It is not free speech. It is the manipulation of public opinion by people with a lot of money and a strong interest in persuading one segment of the population or another to believe a certain thing.

    Advertising, Tom, is advertising.

    Advertising is not free speech.

    All advertising is regulated, Tom. Even political advertising is regulated when it comes directly from the candidate. (Regulated but not vetted for accuracy.) And if it doesn’t come directly from a candidate — if it comes from MoveOn or Swift Boat Veterans for Whatever — it is not held to the accuracy and decency requirements to which actual free speech is subject.

    We have free speech in our homes, in our meeting halls, in our letters to the editor, and here on the web.

    But not on TV.

  63. Tanny O'Haley said on

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Nice idea, however there’s this whole First Amendment thing, which unfortunately in today’s environment, probably covers lies. It would help if people stood up for the truth and if the truth was really important to them. It is my belief that truth became unimportant when they started teaching in college that there is no truth and it isn’t whether or not you tell the truth or do the right thing, but whether or not you get caught.

    I think Daniel Webster said it best about our responsibility as citizens.

    “There is no nation on earth powerful enough to accomplish our overthrow. Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter. From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence.

    I must confess that I do apprehend some danger. I fear that they may place too implicit a confidence in their public servants, and fail properly to scrutinize their conduct; that in this way they may be made the dupes of designing men, and become the instruments of their own undoing.

    We can’t count on others to do this for us, we have to be diligent and determine truth from fiction on our own.

  64. paul said on

    Well said. Like our health care system, this political communication is an embarrassment the country.

  65. Zeldman’s “Modest Proposal” « AD CLUB REJECT said on

    [...] television | Jeffrey Zeldman, designer, blogger and web standards advocate, has some very salient things to say on the topic of political advertising. His idea is one that holds political advertisers—and by [...]

  66. DTT said on

    Maybe we should just scrap the whole political process and do it they did in ancient Athens. Have a lottery with the names of every citizen; your name get’s picked and you get to be president, or a senator, or whatever office is next on the list. No one can opt out and no one can refuse to serve; it would be there duty as a citizen.

    Really, could we do any worse that we have done in the past by picking someone at random?

  67. Grover said on

    I am thoroughly amused by the commenters who clearly read “when candidates lie” as “when Republicans lie.” If you read it this way, or think this only applies to one side or the other, you are part of problem.

  68. SJ Austin said on

    Tom’s right.

    If you are suggesting that the government should require networks to prohibit candidates from airing false political ads, that is an astonishingly unconstitutional idea. (I would prefer the government not censor toothpaste companies, either.) Speech does not have to be accurate or decent to be allowed to be free.

    If you are suggesting the networks censor the ads themselves—as private entities—that is a different story.

  69. k zirkel said on

    This won’t work. Why? Because some of the most outrageous “ads” don’t run on television in the first place; they only run on the Internet. Firstly, it’s a lot cheaper, you know. Then the talking heads on Fox and other so-called “news” programs pick it up and amplify it through the “echo chamber” and give it free publicity.

    The “ad” which claimed that Obama had called Palin a pig was an internet-only ad. Everything else you heard about it was due to the “echo chamber” effect. (I got this information from NPR’s program “On the Media”.)

  70. Patlaj said on

    @grover – I was thinking there must have been a previous version of this post that explicitly mentioned Republicans. ;)

  71. Noel Jackson said on

    Thank you for articulating the things I do not know how.

    I’ve always wished for each candidate to have a “specs” sheet available at polling stations (and elsewhere).

  72. Breton said on

    I’m surprised only one person seems to have noticed (or at least pointed out) that the title of this blog is a reference to a satirical essay written by Johnathan Swift. This implies to me that there’s a knowing element of absurdity in Jeff’s “proposal”. Either that, or the title was chosen carelessly, and for no particular reason, but the eloquence of Jeff’s writing doesn’t mark him as a careless or extremely frivolous person, so I have to lean towards this article being a subtle joke.

    This is reinforced by Jeff’s comment in reply to @Tom, which employs a rather blatent and obvious use of the fallacy of equivocation. That is, zeldman presents an argument that uses the word “free” in “free speech” to mean “Free as in Beer”, instead of ironically “Free as in speech”, to borrow the shorthand of the FSF.

  73. Rock said on

    I think I’ve stumbled on how to make this work, with a clear-cut rule that is easy to follow and won’t get the knickers in their respective twists for those who say you can’t judge truth on a sliding scale to make unilateral decisions about airing commercials or not:

    A candidate cannot air a commercial that mentions the other candidate. Period.

    The ad must therefore ONLY talk about their own candidates in a promotional way, not a “tear down the other one until there’s nothing left and then I’ll look better because we will ahove painted them as a scumbag” way. Or, more eloquently, the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule.

  74. Daniel Stout said on

    I agree with your point, Jeffrey, but as Matt Howell indicated above, the premise that advertising is vetted, truthful, or even accurate is naive to say the least. Advertisers tell lies constantly — food and pharmaceutical companies are especially bad. I think that they just repeat the ads so much that people come to believe the statements being made. That said, I like marketing. I *look* at ads. But that attention has also made me aware of the incredibly shady and manipulative things that most marketers — and the large corporations hiring them — do.

  75. Aldi said on

    This proposal, to be blunt, would be a blatant violation of federal law. Stations cannot refuse to run campaign ads. They can refuse to run ads by 527s and the like, but if the official campaign of an actual candidate wants to buy time, the stations must sell it, even if the ad is not just misleading, but utterly slanderous as well.

    And the exact reason that law was enacted was so that proposals like this one, where some vague “they” would get to determine what is or is not “truth”, can never become reality.

  76. Josh said on

    This is so great! I submitted it to digg. I hope you don’t mind but I really think this is a great point and it’s ridiculous that campaign ads are not held to higher standards. Digg it: http://digg.com/political_opinion/A_modest_proposal_11

  77. BerkeleyDem said on

    So your “modest proposal” is to end the First Amendment, effectively?

    Go fuck yourself, you coddled, anal retentive yuppie.

    You are proposing, in the name of self-defined “truth,” to end political free expression.

    Your proposal would curb all but the most obvious truths. As an endlessly annoying (oh yes, I read you often) Web designer/CSS wingnut, you’ve developed a falsely crisp sense of truth. The world the REST of us live in is not so clear cut.

    Jack off.

  78. bs said on

    oh breton, i wish i was as certain as you were. there should be a law mandating a minimum amount of swiftiness in your satire!

  79. LuckyLuciano said on

    As a passive observer living in Australia, I find the American elections amusing. When they nominated that lady I just knew the venom was going to fly thick and fast.

    Lefties are over-represented in the the creative “soft” fields. They love blogs, poetry, photography, and usually begin a sentence with “I feel”. Beneath all the civic-minded blather it’s really all about them.

    That’s why they are stunned when things don’t go their way. It’s simply too hard to believe the rest of the country isn’t a mirror image of their little online communities.

    You are all playing right into that lady’s hands.

  80. Todd Prouty said on

    Grover said on September 15th, 2008 at 8:23 pm:

    I am thoroughly amused by the commenters who clearly read “when candidates lie” as “when Republicans lie.” If you read it this way, or think this only applies to one side or the other, you are part of problem.

    And that’s exactly why something like this would not work. Whichever party is in power would control what “truth” is. The idea outlined here gives responsibility to the networks to police themselves, but then fines are mentioned. Who would do the fining? The networks wouldn’t be fining each other, so some government agency would need to be in charge of this. But if they’re in charge of issuing fines, it’s likely they would not just do so based on what a panel of network executives decides — they would make the determination of truth on their own. Do we really want some government agency, presumably led by an appointee of the current administration, deciding what truth is? Hello, Ministry of Truth. Hello, Orwell.

  81. Moritz Zimmer said on

    Unfortunately this reads like a case for Thome Yorke’s “Nude”:


    Don’t get any big ideas
    they not gonna happen

  82. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    the premise that advertising is vetted, truthful, or even accurate is naive to say the least. Advertisers tell lies constantly

    Really? I spent 12 years in advertising as a copywriter and art director. Advertisers are not allowed to lie about pharmaceuticals, etc, whatever popular culture may tell you to the contrary.

    Of course sometimes you have a legitimate claim but you choose not to make it. For instance, I worked briefly on a kosher chicken account. One of the benefits of kosher food is that when they kill the animal, they toss its writhing corpse in a bucket of cold water instead of warm water as is used in other butchering methods. This means that when the dying animal defecates into the water, and its feces mixes with the blood gushing out of its neck, there is a slightly lower chance of infection because the water is cold.

    Whereas, with most chicken you buy, the animal’s dying body was dropped into warm water, thus making making it easier for its feces and blood to mix before being cooked and brought to your family’s table.

    This is true stuff and it’s one reason I don’t eat meat. But “the dying animal’s feces is less likely to infect its blood in cold water” just didn’t seem like a slogan a chicken company would want to use.

    Bon apetit!

    If you are suggesting the networks censor the ads themselves—as private entities—that is a different story.

    Right. That is what I not only suggested but actually said. With words. Which, apparently, not everyone read. For if they had read and understood those words, they would not be throwing the First Amendment at me.

    I said nothing about government. I said nothing about censorship. I suggested that the networks themselves put in place a vetting system, such as they already employ for all other forms of advertising.

    The goal is not to create overhead trying to determine what is a lie. The goal is to make the cost of telling a lie high enough that candidates and their advertising partners will be reluctant to risk it, and may thereby be guided into creating a different kind of political advertisement: one in which they discuss themselves, our problems, and their strategy for addressing those problems.

    The “ad” which claimed that Obama had called Palin a pig was an internet-only ad. Everything else you heard about it was due to the “echo chamber” effect. (I got this information from NPR’s program “On the Media”.)

    This is a good point.

    Several people have raised the idea that the problem is not the ads, but the “echo chamber” of 24/7 cable news. That may be right.

    I was thinking there must have been a previous version of this post that explicitly mentioned Republicans. ;)

    Nope.

    So your “modest proposal” is to end the First Amendment, effectively?

    No, it’s to introduce standards and practices to political advertisers that are already in place for all other forms of advertising.

    Go fuck yourself, you coddled, anal retentive yuppie.

    You forgot to say mother may I.

    Where do you get coddled yuppie, anyway? Been working my whole life, dude. My dad is a war veteran who attended college on the GI Bill, going to school at nights while working days. We didn’t have a TV until I was six or seven.

    Through hard work, my dad became middle-class, and by following his example, so have I. I don’t think that makes me a yuppie. And with work days that start at 5:00 AM, I’m not sure “coddled” applies, either.

    I do have an iPhone, though. Maybe that is the source of your resentment. The iPhone sometimes gives me problems. Does that help?

    I’m sorry you are so filled with bile. Maybe you should stop eating chicken.

  83. Les said on

    Surely some people are getting confused with the word ‘lie’ here too?

    There’s a bit of discussion over which political party gets to call ‘lie’ or ‘truth’ – as Jeffrey said – it’s not the party that chooses.

    If candidate 1 says candidate 2 did (or said) something, and it can be proven that candidate 2 didn’t, then surely candidate 1 is lying? There’s no opinion needed. The same goes for the rest of advertising – if a pharma said that their drug cured a disease and it was proved that it didn’t, then their ad wouldn’t be allowed to run.

    Am I oversimplifying ‘truth’ here?

    People’s opinions (politically driven, or otherwise) shouldn’t be the point. Surely you all want someone to govern your country who didn’t get there by lying their way through the campaign (yeah I know how naive)?

    If you had some kind of filter (like the one Jeffrey is suggesting), then the people who believe what the TV says and don’t research this stuff for themselves (you know, like most of the country) wouldn’t get so much harmful crap pushed on them.

  84. Roger said on

    Good call Jeffrey.

    Pretty disheartening to see so many commenters reading what they want to see, rather than what you actually wrote.

    Some folks need to step back a moment and think about this from a position of neutrality and stop knee-jerking back with their party-of-choice’s rhetoric.

  85. Stephen Adams said on

    Truth is almost always in the eye of the beholder in the political arena. The selection of facts used can support (or refute) any particular statement. In addition, many facts require interpretation or explanation. And those call for opinion. It’s entirely possible for honest men and women to disagree, especially when we’re talking politics.

    This puts the network/station in a position of determining things that can never be truly determined. And then, setting up a government agency which is basically playing ‘gotcha’ if some fact isn’t considered, or is interpreted in a different way.

    The idea expressed in the article is fantasy and could never exist in the real world in any way that could ever work.

  86. kat neville said on

    Great post, and very heated debate going on here. In all honesty, I don’t know much about the subject, but the lies from both political sides make me distrust candidates even more. I wish this was enough incentive not to lie.

    It’s too bad the truth isn’t interesting enough to get people worked up, that people remain apathetic until there’s controversy (that are usually partial or complete lies). Just like kids will lie if their parents don’t call them out on it, so too will anyone that really wants something (and what better prize is there than being the next president?). Who’s job is it to call them out? I’m not sure.

    Everyone knows how much advertising affects people and that’s why there’s regulation on it. I agree– free speech shouldn’t be equated with advertising. Someone is paying for advertising because they know it affects people.

  87. ben said on

    “To avoid these crushing fines, networks will insist on proof of statements made in political advertisements, just as they demand proof of statements made in sugarless chewing gum commercials.”

    And so, as a result, small entities like talk radio, blogs and other media that are generally unfriendly to liberals will be forced out of business while the major print publications and television news, which are friendly to liberals, will be able to absorb the cost of the fines.

    Just like the “Fairness Doctrine,” this is just another attempt by liberals to squelch dissent. Go to hell.

  88. Dan said on

    In the land of the stupid, the correct man can never be king.

  89. mospired said on

    Very well put argument and I think this is a great idea and would be an effective deterrent to falsehoods and misinformation. I think everyone throwing back insults at the writer needs a lesson in critical thinking . We all know the truth is relative but come on people how much garbage will you take before you realized you got hosed. Obviously a blatant display of ignorance of whats actually going on with the economy and its “fundamentals” will not open your mind.

  90. Jim Amos said on

    I agree 100%. I also think these candidates should forget talking shit about each other and get on with the job of actually selling people on their policies, beliefs and strategies for the future, you know, all the stuff that makes them qualified to even be running in the first place.

    During the previous election, when watching the televised debates I saw so many lies and pretentious BS being flung back and forth that I was almost screaming at the TV asking ‘why don’t we have journalists backstage fact-checking all that comes out of the candidates mouths and then they can print on-screen a graphic saying ‘true’ or ‘false’ or present the actual figures/stats/facts that were mis-appropriated?’ That way every viewer can be truly informed instead of just believing with his eyes and ears. Methinks we have the technical means to do something along those lines.

  91. Josh said on

    I wholeheartedly agree with this but wish that there was something like this for candidates that don’t keep their campaign promises.

  92. Brian said on

    My favorite thing is that those who favor the republican candidate du’jour take HIS WORD on the democratic candidate’s resume, history, stance and plans. And those who favor the democratic candidate take HIS WORD on the republican candidate’s resume, history, stance and plans.

    I like your idea. Would they do anything about spin? Like a pair of clips on the Daily Show where Karl Rove said that managing a city of ONLY 200k citizens didn’t really make for much experience, but mayoring a city (… what mayoring is a word!) of 8,500 was very commendable experience.

  93. krystyn said on

    Zeldman.com
    web design news & info since 1995
    Go fuck yourself, you coddled, anal retentive yuppie.™

    I want it on a t-shirt.

  94. Weekly Link Round-Up #47 | Trevor Davis said on

    [...] A modest proposal [...]

  95. Murphy said on

    Zeldman, you make a good point, but I seriously doubt that it’ll ever happen. Don’t politicians have an impeccable amount of influence over media?

  96. Jason Robb said on

    Whether it happens or not, it starts with freedom of speech. Thanks for kicking it off, Jeffrey. Great thoughts.

  97. Greg said on

    Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated.TV stations were prohibited by federal law from advertising cigarettes. They lost about 7.5% of their ad revenue.

    That being said, a little truth would be welcome. Or maybe actual discussion of the issues rather than, “My opponent favors eating foreign babies to alleviate the food shortage.”

  98. Verily » Blog Archive » A modest proposal said on

    [...] Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : A modest proposal. 16 September 2008 in Life, Misc | tags: political, truthiness [...]

  99. Nathan said on

    I agree with the sentiment, but a lot of the problems are implications. Try to fact-check something like “candidate X voted against economic growth” and you get mired in economic theories.

    I doubt that most of the lies are black-and-white contradictions of fact. And even if you can get rid of those (which would be great), you’d be stuck with a lot of murky, unprovable implications.

  100. John said on

    Advertising is a way to change people’s behavior. Therefore, companies sell toothpaste by telling you it will make you thin, happy, and adored by all. Advertising almost can’t help but lie, at least from one perspective or another.

    I think we should ban all political advertisements and fund all campaigns with public money.

  101. Daniel Stout said on

    Hi, Jeffrey — Perhaps “lie” is too strong of a word for marketers. There are others — nudge, persuade — or more typically: mislead, obfuscate, manipulate.

    Simply do a Google search for ‘drug ads misleading.’ There’s lots of stuff out there. This USA Today story is typical. Congress tripled the FDA drug ad screening budget this year (in a era of Bush’s budget cutting), and it *wasn’t* because the drug companies are such scrupulous and honest advertisers. When ‘misleading’ becomes the systemic norm, that’s deliberate lying to and manipulation of consumers.

    I don’t care what popular culture, as you mention, has to say about advertising. I don’t, for example, own a TV (a great decision, by the way!). I am simply going off my own analysis of the claims made by marketers. In my experience, the false and misleading claims are more common than strictly truthful claims.

    If you want specific examples, I’ve got a whole bunch. Food packaging in particular is rife with good examples of the kind of manipulations marketers do.

    That’s my perspective at any rate.

    As an aside: I just spent a week in your fair city (had a great time!). I had to laugh at Times Square though. I’m sure it’s very expensive to advertise there, but what a great deal: put up a bright sign and have millions of tourists take photos of it, which they will ultimately share with friends and family. The number of impressions on those ads must be tremendous!

    Respectfully,
    Dan

  102. Justin said on

    Interesting, but unsettling. Consider this:

    In 1960 the New York Times ran an article entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” which solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King against a tax evasion charge. The article told, at times inaccurately, of actions taken by Alabama authorities, including the Birmingham police, against civil rights demonstrators. Though he wasn’t named in the article, L.B. Sullivan, the Birmingham police commissioner, did the American thing: he sued. Under the law of defamation and libel, an Alabama court awarded him $500,000.

    The Times appealed, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Unanimously, the Court held that, absent actual malice on the part of the author or publisher, the First Amendment precludes libel actions brought by public authorities in response to criticism of their public behavior. In a ringing opinion, Justice Brennan wrote for the Court that, in a democracy, “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open and it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

    And it will probably include lies, or at least misinformation. Every election year–and especially this year–we witness anew the spectacle that is American politics and wonder anew how we came to replace Washington and Lincoln with Barnum and Bailey. Each time sincere people lament, as I lament, that the campaigns seek to focus on everything under the sun–with the notable exception of the issues that matter to the American people. It is a dispiriting business.

    But fining candidates and networks for airing falsehoods is madness, and unconstitutional madness at that. In a world of such fines, well-funded candidates might just decide that a good lie is worth the cost of a steep fine as long as it sticks in the minds of the voters–and besides, they might get away with it. Candidates with shallow pockets, on the other hand, might give up altogether–vetting their ads would cost too much, and the risk of fines they could never pay would be too great to run. In the language of constitutional law, such fines would “chill” the very speech the First Amendment most seeks to protect.

    As for the networks, they view politics purely as entertainment and have done so from the beginning. Impose costs on them to ensure the reliability of what they present, and they’ll drop out of the game entirely, filling the breach with more reality shows and underwear ads. In any case, there is sure to be no more discussion of “the issues” under a fines-for-falsehood regime than in the current circus. The truth, alas, is that since at least the days of Andrew Jackson the American people have shown, on the whole, strikingly little appetite for issues. We want, as Caesar knew the Romans wanted, bread and circuses, and the politicians and the networks put we the customer first because they want, respectively, our vote and our cash.

    The “modest proposal’s” invocation of products liability law is particularly inapt. Corporations peddling toothpaste have to certify the safety and quality of their product because people reasonably rely on their representations; the consumer’s safety depends on such reliance. Only fools, and perhaps drunkards, rely on the representations of politicians. (Though here we remember Bismarck’s famous quip that “God, it seems, has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”) Our Constitution hazards the bet, perhaps recklessly, that in the political sphere truth will out in a fair and open fight. Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it in his inimitable judicial style:

    “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

    Maybe the experiment has failed or is failing. No one, in any case, can be blamed for viewing this year’s campaign with dismay, or even contempt. But the Constitution leaves it up to We the People to distinguish truth from error, to correct lies aired in the public forum. To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, the cure for false speech is more speech, not fines that would inhibit speech. Conscious and bald-faced lies, animated by actual malice, can still be addressed by suits for defamation and libel. Better yet, they can be addressed by public declarations of the truth. The problem, alas, is finding an audience. The fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves, not in our laws.

    Cheers and apologies my early-morning rambling,
    J

  103. Patrick said on

    You can tell when both McCain and Obama are lying – their lips are moving.

  104. fromabove said on

    “Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.” – Frank Zappa

  105. Jin said on

    Zeldman, why do you have to ruin chicken for me??? And don’t even say anything about pigs, because I’m a bacon fiend. So you can stop right there.

  106. links for 2008-09-16 » Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie said on

    [...] A modest proposal An idea for change in how our politicians promote their agendas. I think this should be mandatory. (tags: politics ads democracy lies usa) [...]

  107. diário de bordo» Arquivo » Uma proposta modesta (e revolucionária) said on

    [...] mais me impressiona é a qualidade da escrita e, acto contínuo, do pensamento. Ontem, numa “proposta modesta“, o Jeffrey Zeldman escreveu algumas coisas fundamentais acerca da natureza do actual sistema [...]

  108. João Martins said on

    Your words ring so true and necessary, I couldn’t resist translating them into Portuguese and sharing them, with my readers.
    Portugal, as most of the European democracies, is a long way from falling completely hostage of the Politics of Entertainment, as it seems to be the case with the USA. But we’re all moving there, unwillingly, uncounsciously, or just plain lazily (is that a word?).
    Thank you for being a free, bright and lucid north-american.

  109. A Modest Proposal: Truth in Campaign Advertising « John McCain is a Liar said on

    [...] to be true, but political advertisements can be outright lies? It’s a valid question, asked by Jeffry Zeldman: It is illegal to make false claims in a TV or radio commercial unless you are running for [...]

  110. The Point Blog » Blog Archive » Pursuing truth in political advertising said on

    [...] Jeffrey Zeldman has an idea. [...]

  111. Ryan A Graves.com | Reblog: Truth in Political Advertising said on

    [...] Jeffrey Zeldman has an idea. Just as they once united to stamp out cigarette advertising, radio and TV stations and advertisers must get together and agree that false statements in political advertisements will not be tolerated. If you run a political ad that proves to be a lie, your network will pay a steep fine, and the advertiser will pay an even steeper one. [...]

  112. DrunkPuppy » Blog Archive » Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : A modest proposal said on

    [...] (Via Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : A modest proposal.) [...]

  113. Daniel Stout said on

    I really think you missed the point, Jeffrey, with your comment about kosher chicken. I’m not talking about whether halal meat producers should detail precisely the steps they use in the preparation of their product, or something of that sort. I’m talking about deliberate lies — misleading statements, misrepresentations, careful exclusion of contrary evidence.

    Just today (Sept. 17) Senator Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and from my beautiful state of Wisconsin, is holding hearings on whether medical device makers need their advertising to be regulated at least as closely as drug companies. Why? Because of their heinously misleading and deceptive advertisements. “The medical device industry is just beginning to get into the game,” Senator Kohl said.

    I haven’t worked in the NY ad industry for 12 years, as you did. Apparently the view from the inside is that ads are pure, heavily regulated, and basically honest. Perhaps that was the case under the Clinton administration, and things have changed in the past seven or eight years. I am simply a private citizen who examines the claims and appeals made by the marketing that saturates our culture, and I personally find much of it to be false. I am not the only one though, and that is certainly one useful function of government.

  114. Rock said on

    So, anyone want to try to punch holes in my “Your ad can only be about yourself and cannot mention the other candidate” idea? Seriously. I can’t think of a single damn thing wrong with that approach.

  115. Jeff Behrens said on

    The thing about political advertising (and advertising in general) is that “truth” is such a slippery, subjective concept that you can’t really establish any objective barometer for what does and doesn’t qualify.

    You mention the ban on cigarette ads, which essentially came out of a lack of agreement about the “truths” of smoking — we all knew it was bad for us, but the extent to which was and is still disputed. The solution, as you said, was to ban those sorts of advertisements altogether.

    Perhaps THATS what needs to happen in political advertising, but never will, and for good reason: the First Amendment (and to the previous commenter, who suggests the “Your ad can only be about yourself and cannot mention the other candidate” approach: I think its a great idea, but again, the First Amendment as its interpreted more or less prohibits that sort of limitation).

    Still, think of the good that could come from a ban on political ads. With a huge portion of the “horse race” out of the equation, perhaps the news media would begin to investigate real events, real narratives, and the consequences of real ideologies. Campaigns would be cheaper, less inclined toward manipulation and exploitation from consultants and the like, and, most importantly, they’d be forced to act themselves out on more of a grassroots level.

    I think you’re onto something here, Jeff. Unfortunately, I think this is one of those things that might be unfixable without vast unintended consequences (which, I get the feeling, you realize too, given the title of this post. its a bummer).

  116. DTT said on

    Rock said:

    So, anyone want to try to punch holes in my “Your ad can only be about yourself and cannot mention the other candidate” idea? Seriously. I can’t think of a single damn thing wrong with that approach.

    Okay, I’ll give it a try.

    “Vote for me. I didn’t vote to teach sex ed in kindergarten. Vote for me I’m not inexperienced. Vote for me I’m not an elitist left-wing liberal who wants to raise your taxes. Vote for me since, like our god not the Muslim one, I don’t support abortion or stem-cell research (even though I seem to be in dire need of what it might offer if I hope to make it through even one term). Vote for me I’m not a fist bumping terrorist. Vote for me, I’m not a Muslim. Vote for me, I’m not black.”

    or

    “Vote for me. Vote for me, I didn’t pick some wildly unqualified beauty queen for my running-mate. Vote for me because I do think the economy is in trouble. Vote for me because I won’t keep our troops mired in a senseless was for a hundred years. Vote for me because I’m not a senile old fart. Vote for me…I only have one house. Vote for me because my wife doesn’t look like Vincent Price risen from the grave in a blonde wig.”

    While it might not be as effective as calling your opponent a baby eating rapist who likes to kick dogs after driving home drunk from a gay bar…it would probably get the job done.

    And to everyone else who keeps equating free speech and television; call up your local station and tell them you want to exercise your right to free speech and you want thirty seconds in prime. I’m sure they will be happy to tell you how much your “free speech” will cost you. That is if they don’t tell you to go pound sand. I can attest after years of working at several TV and radio stations, nothing is free and they don’t have to give you access no matter how much money you have if they don’t want to.

  117. bs said on

    rock, i really want my politicians to be able to speak freely. if they feel like they gotta demonize the other guy, so be it.

    the truly sad thing is that listeners don’t seem to be very critical of these messages. nothing about your proposal would change that reality, and i think legislation would make us even more trusting and less discerning.

  118. bs said on

    also, would your rule imply that obama couldn’t criticize the bush administration?

  119. Rock said on

    I really don’t think this rule would prohibit someone from peaking freely any more than Twitter’s 140-character limit hurts free speech. It’s just a constraint, not a limitation of message, and it’s an easy one to enforce. Just like “don’t use the passive voice in an essay.”

    In this case, I’d say he *could* criticize the Bush administration because he’s not running against Bush. It’s like they’ve said for healthy communication, “use ‘I’ language.” “I will do this, I won’t do that, I propose this, etc.” It would then be up to McCain to do the same and one would hope a voter could make the candidate-comparisons on their own (rather than letting these “I approve this message…” BS do it for them).

  120. cmichaelcooper said on

    In American politics it is more about electing a party than it is about an individual, because those individuals will behave as is expected by their party. For example, as a presidential candidate, or as president, McCain will NOT be any kind of maverick or reformer because the Republican party will not allow it. That is the price of getting their support and nomination.

    It is because of this that I believe ALL political advertisements should be illegal and instead we should interrupt our normally scheduled crap tv with debates and actual discussions. It is pathetic that I can watch more hours of family guy in a single day than I can watch of our candidates debating the issues (if they will talk about the issues at all) for their entire campaign.

  121. Luis Gross said on

    You already have enough essays for comments so I just have one thing to say,

    Why can’t everyone think like you?

    Since everyone doesn’t think like you and I, or at least since the majority of Americans don’t think like you and I, I’ll be straightforward about it, McCain is going to win.

    I’d hate to see it happen.

    But he will.

    Trump just endorsed him tonight on the Larry King show; obviously because he knows McCain is simply going to cut taxes on the rich and raise them on the middle and lower class.

    Not that Trump has any influence on votes, but rather, “look who’s voting for McCain”.

    Obama’s doing the complete opposite.

    But dirty, filthy, dishonest ads, will surely brainwash non-critical thinking society — as it already has.

    We’re going to lose.

  122. peter said on

    this is exactly why we started liecount.com. We always thought someone should be throwing flags on these lies…

  123. bs said on

    rock, that’s exactly the problem. you’re describing censorship. it’s called “prior restraint”. why should it be ok for anyone… especially a political candidate?

    right now they won’t speak truth. you propose a rule guaranteeing that they can’t speak their minds. why would that be any better?

    this is why speech rights should not be left to engineers. our system ain’t perfect, but this is actually a feature, not a bug. the problem is that most people will vote for liars without checking for truth, not that politicians lie about each other. they lie about everything.

  124. A Modest Proposal | Go East said on

    [...] Read Jeffrey Zeldman’s full proposal. [...]

  125. grigori said on

    Presidents not elected, they are chosen prior to the presidential race by the real owners of this country. Many worthwhile candidates don’t even get sufficient exposure as they voices and campaigned quickly silenced. If you think that current candidates are any different from one another, think again. Either one answers to the same think tanks and agendas that are unravelling at this very moment, hence they progress to the point where they are. Economical collapse, monetary values as notes of debt,- all part of the long term plan. Democracy as concept renders into joke which floats up to the surface government fascism towards the population.
    Whichever way this boat goes, expect some bumpy ride ahead with FEMA, Marshal Law, Endless Costly Wars, Criminal Wall Street, Private Fed/IRS, Black Flag operation Terrorism, North American Union, Amero, – all the good stuff which just another step towards New World Order. Question is,- what are YOU going to do about.

  126. Nicolas said on

    Wow, I think this is a great idea. You should submit it to Google for “project 10^100″ !

  127. Ken Nickless said on

    Maybe they could siphon off a small piece of the 700 billion dollars that it’s going to take to fix a much bigger problem. Unfortunately there are just too many greedy buggers in this world today. Some of them even walk away with $490 million whilst the majority of the general public suffer, and will contnue to suffer for years to come.

  128. The Bat said on

    Frankly, after wading through the above, I fear more for the 1st Amendment than anything. Yes, campaign ads are speech. And the measure of veracity is not whether or not somebody finds them offensive.

  129. Jeff W said on

    IMO, our whole political system has become so professional and so focused on techniques for manipulating and crafting the images of politicians for the purpose of getting them elected (or keeping the opponent from it) that figuring out who they are and what they might actually do in office is almost impossible.

    When they say different things and make different promises depending upon which audience they are facing at them moment, and when every word, phrasing, etc is so carefully planned for the image it will convey to X voter, honesty gets completely lost in the dust.

    If their whole image is a lie, how would you decide when to fine them?
    (It’d take a whole team of lawyers to prove it enough to make it stick. And I imagine that the candidate’s lawyers could keep any judgement delayed at least until an election is over, good luck getting any money from them.)

    I like your idea, but I have no confidence that it could actually work. IMO it’d just make them find loopholes and more subtle ways to tell the same lies, so that they could get away with them without *quite* going over the threshold of provable-lie to trigger the punishment.

    Considering the skill that those in the political system have for finding loopholes in everything else, don’t you think they’d find them in this too?

  130. Mary said on

    Here, here!

  131. Bradley said on

    And whom, I wonder, would be enforce the law and levy the “crushing fines?” Ah yes, the government, of course. I’m sure that there is no risk of manipulation there. Or what about if a major network decided that ALL of a particular candidate’s ads were “unverifiable?”

    This proposal may be interesting for internet blog debate, but in terms of reality, it is simple-minded and wide open for manipulation and abuse. God help us if such a scheme were ever implemented.

  132. Daring Fireball Linked List: September 2008 said on

    [...] A Modest Proposal ★ [...]

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