Jury holds campaign ad makers accountable

At times it seems nothing could possibly be shocking anymore when it comes to American politics.

Sure, it's easy to turn on cable news talk programs and see Rachel Maddow, Ann Coulter, James Carville or Bill O'Reilly work themselves into a lather over something they absolutely can't believe came out of the mouth of a politician whose views disagree with their own. But that's theater. Trumped-up, overblown shock has become a staple of how we participate and consume politics.

Just because the talking heads feign shock and gnash their teeth doesn't mean we, the people, can possibly be surprised by the shenanigans of modern politics anymore. A presidential candidate kept a mistress and love child secret for years? Yawn. A governor's close friend got a fat state contract after making healthy campaign donations? Yesterday's news.

Perhaps at no time do we see the politics of exaggerated shock and awe on a bigger stage than during political elections.

Candidates and those faceless Political Action Committees flood the airwaves with ads painting their opponents as wasteful spenders, woman haters, dog killers and elitists. The ads often distort the truth and sometimes are filled with outright lies.

But something happened April 6 that despite our cynical frame of mind shocked us. A Sioux City Republican actually won a defamation of character case stemming from a 2010 campaign ad.

Rick Bertrand sued his opponent, Rick Mullin, and the state Democratic Party. The ad stated that Bertrand "put profits ahead of children's health," when he worked for a drug company. Bertrand had been a regional manager for a biotech company. In the lawsuit he said he never owned a drug company or sold the pediatric drug alluded to in the ad.

The jury awarded Bertrand $231,000 in damages, $200,000 of which was to be paid by the state party.

For too long it's been the domain of independent fact checkers — often news organizations — to point out untruthful campaign ads. Kudos to the Woodbury County jury for saying those making the accusations have a responsibility to at least be accurate.

We aren't naive enough to believe the Bertrand case will ring in a new era of truth in advertising in political campaigns. But it does feel refreshing, and perhaps it will at least lead campaigns to think a little bit harder about the content of their ads.

Some in the political world fear precedent set in the case will put a damper on ads that draw contrasts between candidates. The truth is never too high of a standard, shocking or not.

— Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier

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