Opinion column: Curb the mudslinging

By Alex Dunkel

With the onslaught of attacks against Sen. John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam, and the controversy surrounding ties between President Bush’s campaign and the organization that made the ads, it has become apparent this will be one of the nastiest presidential races in recent history.

Whether it’s MoveOn.org or other anti-Bush groups accusing the president of desertion, or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accusing Senator Kerry of trying to use a “three-injury loophole” to shorten his stay in Vietnam, it all boils down to one thing: These issues will not affect the outcome of the election. The United States is greatly polarized, with key issues being abortion, separation of church and state, and same-sex rights. The media plays on this division, avoiding the “boring” details of broader issues and catering to the mud-caked politicians and their superficial campaigns.

Mudslinging is as old as democracy itself. Whether mudslinging is truly effective and ethical is widely debated. For more than 20 years, politicians have gravitated toward the use of attack ads with the hopes of ruining their opponent’s image while putting less effort toward boosting their own image. This led to the popular view that voters are choosing the “lesser of two evils,” and has possibly had a negative impact on voter turnout nationwide.

Voter turnout underwent a sharp decline in the 1976 presidential election and has only worsened since, according to the Federal Election Commission. Yet despite the apparent correlation between the use of attack ads and declining voter turnout, the popular media and the public seem more interested in what happened to two spoiled rich kids during the Vietnam War than they do about the 50,000 civilians massacred in Sudan in recent months.

What this shows – aside from the fact that most U.S. citizens have little to no concern for human beings in other countries – is that most people enjoy mudslinging. If this media circus didn’t have a positive effect on TV ratings and print-media sales, they wouldn’t be covering it as excessively as they are (of course, this ignores biased news reporting, and the control of much of the media by conservative elements. (*Cough* Fox News *Cough*).

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The fact is U.S. citizens generally are becoming less willing to compromise and increasingly hostile toward anyone with whom they disagree. The roots of this problem can be debated, but the effects are clear to see. The sharp divide between angry liberals and defensive, yet assertive, conservatives only is growing. Similar to the cinematic food fights or bar brawls that instantly begin from a smaller fight, mudslinging used in U.S. politics quickly is leaving the campaign trail and spreading elsewhere. Though people always will have their disagreements, the level of hostility is rising. The divide is beginning to run so deep that one might wonder if our nation could possibly stand united in the face of another catastrophic event such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Both sides are to blame for this divide, although it easily can be demonstrated that the hateful views of fundamentalists, the callous and destructive policies of the corporate world and the casual acceptance of both by many conservatives puts most of the blame on the Right. Regardless, for the sake of our country’s future, both sides quickly must learn to cool off, step back and simply look at the issues. Though abortions, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage are important issues (while the military service of both Kerry and Bush definitely is not), voters must demand meaningful news coverage of important issues relevant to this upcoming election. They must learn to debate, not spit at each other. Only then can they make an informed choice come Nov. 2.

Alex Dunkel is a University employee. His column runs alternate Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected].