By David Loomis
INDIANA – The campaign lacked substantive issues, despite a national agenda begging for debate and action. Polls showed the Republican candidate was not very popular.
His supporters decided to go negative with an attack ad featuring a convicted felon. The GOP candidate, joined by media, focused the negative ad around public safety and criminal justice.
And, not so subtly, around race. The televised ad showed the convicted felon, a minority, in a mugshot. News media played the attack ad as a central issue in the campaign.
The year was 1988. The Republican candidate was George H.W. Bush. The felon was William R. “Willie” Horton.
Among Americans of a certain age, “Willie Horton” ranks among the most hate- and fear-mongering political ads in modern American history.
The 1988 election was widely criticized as trivial. In addition to Willie Horton, the campaign focused on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Cold War was ending.
In reaction, some reformers in the press proposed a new kind of journalism – public journalism. As it was practiced in subsequent elections, public journalism wrestled the agenda away from politicians and vested it with citizens, aided by the press,
SOME OF THIS HISTORY is once again making headlines. Last week, Donald Trump tweeted out a campaign ad regarded by critics as worse than “Willie.”
Once again, a leader of the Republican Party has played on fear and falsehood to distract the electorate in a closely contested campaign. Even though he is not on the ballot anywhere in country on Nov. 6, Trump has invited voters to frame the midterm congressional election around him, and it’s not hard to find news media adopting his framing.
Thus, once again, news media now, as in 1988, are allowing a blinkered political leader to set the nation’s agenda. Even those news organizations labeled “enemies of the people” – the organizations doing the watch-dogging and calling out the president’s lies and delusions – are captive to Trump’s prominence and conflicts. Prominence, conflict and truth-seeking define much of what news media call news.
“We’re not at war,” Washington Post editor Marty Baron told a forum in late September. “We’re at work.”
This is ground covered before during the fear-mongering heyday of Red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.
Trump’s war against norms, reality and the press inhibits and distracts the press’ agenda-setting function — its ability to influence priorities on the public agenda.
And it represents trickle-down trouble, too. When Trump invites voters to make the midterms a referendum on him, local and state agendas also get distracted. Public and civic discourse gets derailed.
OR IT GETS DEFLECTED. In this year of the woman, Indiana County has seen the nationwide surge in Democratic female candidates challenging Republican incumbents.
Brookville attorney Kerith Strano Taylor, an experienced Democratic candidate for the 66th District seat (which includes a portion of Indiana County) in the state House of Representatives, has been unable to engage incumbent state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, in substantive face-to-face debate throughout the campaign.
Such debate could be revealing. For one example, Dush famously responded to the January 2018 court-ordered redrawing of Pennsylvania’s gerrymandering congressional district lines by introducing legislation seeking to impeach state Supreme Court justices – all Democrats – who voted to remap the districts. Dush denied that his effort was a naked partisan move, as critics charged.
“It is an unconstitutional-theft-of-power issue,” Dush insisted. He also described the justices’ ruling as “misbehavior in office.”
Subsequent attempts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to buy in to Dush’s intemperate move have failed, most recently last week. The high court’s new conservative majority rebuffed the Pennsylvania Republican effort – for the third time.
It would be illuminating to hear Rep. Dush respond to the latest development.
DITTO FOR THE newly drawn 15th Congressional District seat where five-term Republican incumbent Glenn Thompson is facing IUP professor Susan Boser, a first-time candidate with real policy-making credentials. His campaign also has been silent, largely because the incumbent has declined to face the challenger – although Thompson has obliged the president by embracing his policies 98.9 percent of the time.
Thompson talking points say, “You can’t spend what you don’t have.” But he voted for the president’s December 2017 tax-cut law that is ballooning the deficit and the debt, as it benefits the rich and repels middle-class voters.
It would be illuminating to hear Rep. Thompson respond to the developments.
BUT IF INCUMBENTS won’t engage in public, then the public will have to. By many accounts, Nov. 6 voter turnout will be high. Whatever the outcome, newly engaged constituents – and a reinvigorated press – will need to reset the agendas. The issues – state and federal — are as plentiful as the incumbents have been mum.
The work begins Nov. 7.
David Loomis, Ph.D., retired associate professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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