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November 27, 2014

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A Suburban View:

Ugly campaigns and the morning after

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

During the recent election season, people who knew my line of work often would wink and ask if I was enjoying the whole thing. My usual reply was that it depended on what part of the campaigns we were talking about.

The level of public interest that we saw this year meant our coverage was more closely read and scrutinized than usual. So in that regard, election years raise the game of many newspaper writers and editors, and it seemed to me our news coverage held up pretty well under the spotlights.

But as we have seen of recent, advertising strategies are also a big part of the campaigns and can reveal much about a candidate. And in the modern era, newspapers don't see so many political ads; the biggest share of these budgets is spent on television.

There are exceptions, of course, especially on the more local levels. For example, because the Home News circulates in specific geographic areas, a number of candidates incorporated it into their marketing strategies this year. But when it came to the bigger bucks, the newspaper industry watched the big ad dollars again flow into television, where the spots lined up one after the other in the last few weeks.

It wasn't always this way. Not so many years ago, newspaper ad buys were a key marketing strategy for many candidates. But then, that was in an era in which candidates used us for as much messaging as they could, a time in which it was believed that all newspaper readers voted and all voters read newspapers.

But a few things happened over the years that changed how political advertising works.

For one thing, strategists figured out that we'll be writing about the candidates and the issues regardless of whether we get any advertising dollars from them.

Their names, faces and statements make it into newspapers often enough that they feel ad dollars can be diverted elsewhere, to reach less informed audiences.

But that's the polite excuse. There's a much uglier reason for the politicians' preference of TV. It's because these days, campaign strategists know that TV is a better medium than print when it's time to go to the dark side.

Negative campaigning is not new, but this year we saw it sink to an entirely lower level, void of ethics and integrity. Negative ads are now a tool in every campaign arsenal, and this time around, we saw that put into practice not just in the race for president, but even down into the races for the Clark County School Board. They were mean and personal, full of outrageous accusations and deliberate attempts to deceive – which, come to think of it, is the definition of a lie.

And as though it was just another reality show, we watched with incredulity as campaigns fell face-first into the mud, interrupting our evening viewing fare with sorry evidence of what some people will do to get elected. When brought to such a local level, it seemed all wrong.

For all our metropolitan pretenses, this Valley is still a small town, a place where you can become familiar with many of the people running for office. My own perception is that few candidates actually are the devious and dishonest characters depicted by their adversaries.

But no matter. When they want to move the needle, modern campaigns go to the tube. Unflattering photographs and out-of-context statements work perfectly in a 30-second TV spot. They're just right for modern attention spans. And besides, if you're going to make outlandish claims, best to make them in a TV ad; it's much easier for a reader to verify the truth of printed statements than those made on a half-minute commercial.

But that was then, and after a presidential election, our interests turn to other things. It's not as fashionable to talk about campaigns and their tactics once Election Day has passed. It was a long, protracted battle, and we are weary.

Newspapers will move on. We've adjusted to the shift in political advertising budgets, and we are well aware that campaign strategies aren't likely to change in the near future.

But this remains a small town in a small state, and there are at least a few candidates out there who ought to apologize for their behavior. You could do so in print, through a newspaper. We'll consider it political news, and we will never charge for that.

Bruce Spotleson is general manager of the Home News and group publisher of Greenspun Media Group. He can be reached at 990-2442 or [email protected].

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