Topic: Government & Politics

The Bush Ads, Bias and Deception
(3/11/2004)

The position of Ethics Scoreboard is that there is little merit to the complaint that it is inappropriate and wrong for President Bush to include footage of the Twin Towers attacks in his campaign ads. Undoubtedly the images are especially painful to those whose loved ones were involved. But it is strange to argue that it is somehow exploitive to use national crises in which the President has played a role in a presidential campaign.

Nobody, even the victims, "owns" a national tragedy. Their images can be fairly used to illustrate any point, and the appropriateness of the use should be judged on its merits. Human rights activists have use the death of Matthew Shepard to press their concerns about discrimination against gays. Should the fact that the references upset his family and friends make his tragedy off-limits to use to advocate policy changes? The events of September 11, 2001 have determined much of the course of the Bush administration's first term, from the economy, to homeland security, to foreign policy. It would appear that some of the condemnation being heaped on the ads is less the product of genuine indignation than they are of a partisan desire to stifle political advocacy.

Some, but not all. Certainly many of the families of 9/11 victims viscerally dislike the ads and think they are insensitive, and they deserve to have their objections aired and discussed. But some supposedly aggrieved family members are using the issue, which is one of ethics, not politics, to promote an anti-Bush agenda that pre-dated any television ads. The media, meanwhile, is lazily taking them at their word.

In its coverage of the issue, the Washington Post, among other newspapers, has quoted September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which claims to be a nonpartisan group. The Post has dutifully identified them as such. They are not. The Wall Street Journal reports that Peaceful Tomorrows is a "project" of the left-leaning Tides Center. The Center provides back-office services to ideologically acceptable charitable organizations for a fee. Among the Center's financial supporters are various Heinz family endowments, some chaired by Teresa Heinz, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

The organizers of Peaceful tomorrows also have credentials as anti-Bush activists. This would all be fine, if the organization were direct and open about its alliances, loyalties, and agendas. The media coverage of the organization would lead readers to believe that the group unites 9/11 families hurt and offended by the use of the tragedy in political ads. In fact, it unites individuals opposed to the Bush administration generally, who have found controversy over the ads to be a useful tool. This is misrepresentation, and the press has been negligent in not exposing it.

Does this mean that a 9/11 widow should be barred from giving her reasons for objecting to the ads on the Today Show if she is a confirmed anti-Bush activist? Absolutely not. But her opinions about the ad, sincere as they might be, still have to be evaluated in the light of her political objectives. It is dishonest to hide those objectives, and it is irresponsible of the news media not to look for them.

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