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Attack ads: Ad anonymity is not in the public interest

MAILANDER MUSINGS - An anonymously produced online commercial at YouTube, attacking City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who will run against Raul Bocanegra for a North Valley seat in the California State Assembly, had the city's political class talking this week, mostly not liking what they saw.


"Media anonymity is a refuge for political cowardice," Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Councilman Mark Mauceri told me the other day.  "If you're unwilling to state your name, it's a safe bet you're ashamed.  No matter how good you think your motives are."

Mauceri knows a thing or two about anonymity.  Like many activists and some journalists, Mauceri was harassed and libeled by anonymous attackers in the past City election cycle, when he was running for a district rep positiion.  Mauceri got an attorney involved and figured out who his harassers were, and those harassers haven't been seen on the civic scene much since.

John Thomas, consultant to District Attorney candidate Alan Jackson and mayoral candidate Kevin James, agreed that anonymous ads have no place in political discourse.

"Candidates and campaigns need to grow a pair and release this stuff under their own name. The hit wasn't that hard and was based on facts. The opposing candidate should step up and take the credit for release it. I don't know who produced it but I'm sure it was a rival camp."

In fact, the leading suspect behind the anti-Alarcon attack ad, according to political insiders, is an unlikely apartment owner's association.  But as long as campaign finance laws are weak enough to allow spending on anonymous attack ads, it's almost pointless to try to calculate the impact out-of-public-view groups have while blasting away at candidates from safely behind concealed duck blinds.

There is also nothing in place even to put a candidate in a prospective position to create an unfair ad whose goal is to receive empathy from voters.  Janice Hahn scored enormous amounts of voter empathy--and much media coverage--when a very distasteful out-of-state video mocking her record on gang intervention found its way onto YouTube.  She couldn't have fared better had she produced the spot herself.

The truth is that neither media nor government can keep track of all the ad abuse, waste, fraud, campaign corruption, and illicit influence peddling that goes on in City Hall, especially surrounding campaigns, even with properly identified ads, in a timely way--and even if they could, there are no government agencies with enough will to enforce all but the most egregious instances of misconduct.

 

Our laws protect anonymity for tipster sources, and that's good--but other laws also protect the anonymity of political snipers and dirty tricksters playing fast and loose with facts, and that's not so good.  Weak codes on campaign conduct further protect the anonymity of many kinds of media buys, Internet postings, and allow bogus-not-for-profit organizations to keep their the books and donor lists veiled even while engaging in strident political activities and lobbying.

The weak sets of laws have governing State and local elections have done a grave disservice to the public and the media's ability to track even the most sinister kind of influence peddling in civic government.  The shortcomings of the city and State codes are all evidences of a broken system, a system in which politicians persistently preach the need for transparency and accountability--increasingly meaningless terms when it comes to the way elections and even civic life itself in Los Angeles is conducted these days.  So much of our local political discourse is engineered to be neither transparent nor accountable, but to keep the voter perpetually in the dark.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer for CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror.)

 

CityWatch

Vol 10  Issue 18

Pub. Mar. 3, 2012

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