Wednesday, October 24, 2007

They put the silly in the season

It’s time for that biennial migraine suffered by editors of local newspapers everywhere. The home stretch of the local election campaign, every couple of years, brings with it a barrage of political ads making dubious claims and scurrilous attacks. Editors suffer the unhappy consequence of the silly season at its silliest peak: vetting the ads and dealing with politicians and their operatives who fight tooth and nail every attempt to, er, keep ’em honest. Things reach fever pitch right about now, two weeks out.
And it’s been brutal this year. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this has been a particularly rough year for dealing with political ads in The Suffolk Times newsroom. Each “side” came into the campaign convinced that this newspaper was solidly in the other camp. When the Democrats think you favor the Republicans and the Republicans think you’re carrying water for the Democrats, you must be doing something right, I figure. We’ve been screamed at, threatened with a lawsuit and accused of taking sides — both sides — and that was just in the past week. The person on our staff whose job includes booking political ads is totally stressed out. One horrible encounter with a campaign representative had our managing editor questioning the sanity of anyone involved in politics. And I found myself exchanging harsh words with candidates on the sidewalk outside Poquatuck Hall in Orient Saturday afternoon.
We can’t wait for this to end.
The weird thing is, this is the unlikeliest group of men to be involved in such a down-and-dirty slugfest, if you ask me. Intelligent, well-spoken, and well-bred country gentlemen battling over who’s “most rural,” they’ve proved they can sling mud with the best of city street-fighters. To be fair, not every candidate went down this path. Some stayed above the fray. But the undercurrent has been nasty this campaign.
Much of this has gone down behind the scenes. But the mostly genteel exterior of this year’s campaign was going to be cracked wide open this week, though, with a couple of nasty ads submitted for publication that, in the end, won’t see the light of day — at least not in the pages of The Suffolk Times. We have the League of Women Voters to thank for that, at least indirectly. Here’s why:
A representative of the League is moderating the candidates debate we’re sponsoring tonight at Peconic Landing. (It’s free, open to the public and runs from 7:30 to 9 p.m., so come on down.) She suggested we ask the candidates to sign the League’s “fair campaign pledge.” It’s a straightforward statement by the candidate promising that he’ll conduct his campaign honestly and fairly; that he’ll discuss the issues and not engage in or condone defamatory attacks upon his opponent’s character; that he won’t misrepresent or distort facts about his opponent; and that he’ll publicly repudiate support from any person or group whose activities violate the pledge. When the candidates came to our office on Oct. 12 for endorsement interviews — we get the candidates for each post in the room together to answer questions and discuss the issues — we asked them to review and sign the pledge. They all complied — eventually. Some took a while — like a week or more. I guess it was a lot to mull over, all this honesty and fairness stuff. The ink was barely dry on the signature line when one candidate immediately submitted an ad that, without question, violated his pledge. If he hadn’t finally agreed to pull it in favor of an ad that wasn’t in violation, I’d be outing him right here and now. But he agreed to keep his word, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
The icing on the cake this week was one candidate who submitted an ad asking us to run it only if his opponent ran a negative ad. Whoa. We don’t go there, mister. You decide which ad you want to run, and we don’t ever — and I mean ever — let on about the contents of the adversary’s ad. That situation was worked out after much fussing and lots of e-mails and phone calls. You’d think we were brokering a cease-fire in the Middle East.
So much of this is so petty, so juvenile, so… Well, suffice it to say it’s what puts the “silly” in the season.

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