CAN 30-SECOND TV spots give voters enough information to enable them to make intelligent choices? Let us hope so, for in many campaigns they provide most of the information voters get. They can be used to make inaccurate statements or misleading charges, just as other media are used for similar purposes -- witness the scurrilous ad the Republican National Committee placed in the Norfolk papers headlined "Why did Doug Wilder" -- the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor -- "neglect the needs of battered wives?" In this year's Virginia campaigns, we are gearing up to watch the TV spots especially closely and to report periodically on their fairness and accuracy.
The first flights of TV spots -- with one unfortunate exception -- have done a fair job of presenting the case for each candidate. Since few voters know much about either Democrat Gerald Baliles or Republican Wyatt Durrette, both have run mainly positive spots, staking out issues and stating, albeit in the political shorthand required by the 30-second format, specific positions.
Mr. Baliles emphasizes education, economic growth and the environment, and says he would fully fund the standards of quality and concentrate on cleaning up toxic wastes. He emphasizes his experience in office and argues that he has been steady in his views. Mr. Durrette emphasizes education and economic growth. He calls for more challenging textbooks and advocates merit pay for teachers, and calls for local industrial recruitment teams and the use of community colleges for job training. Mr. Durrette's ads refer to his background as a legislator and argue that he has worked for innovative solutions for a wide variety of problems. Both candidates' ads feature classrooms with both black and white children; both talk about Virginia being No. 1.
Both campaigns have also run negative or "comparison" spots. Mr. Durrette says he is for "better leadership" and his opponent favors "bigger government"; "I want to pay good teachers more, and he wants to pay all teachers the same." This fits in with his general theme that Virginia needs "new and better solutions." A fair enough statement of a general theme and of specific views.
Mr. Baliles has been running 10-second ads showing a roller coaster and charging that Mr. Durrette has changed his positions on five specific issues. "Jerry Baliles is a governor we can rely on," they say. "Ever wonder if Wyatt Durrette's taking us for a ride?" Mr. Durrette says one of these spots, charging he has flip-flopped on capital punishment, is unfair. He says he voted against a mandatory death penalty because he had doubts about its constitutionality -- doubts vindicated, he says, when the Supreme Court threw similar laws out. The Baliles forces cite a newspaper report quoting Mr. Durrette as opposing a mandatory death penalty as a weak deterrent. In our view, Mr. Durrette's complaint is well-taken. Opposition to a mandatory death penalty is not a fair basis from which to base the inference, which the roller coaster ad invites, that Mr. Durrette is unsteady on this issue.
The Durrette campaign also believes that the overall thrust of the roller coaster ads -- that Mr. Durrette is inconsistent on many issues -- is misleading. A politician can change his views on a few issues over time, the argument goes, and sometimes should; Mr. Baliles has changed his mind occasionally, they say; and, they go on, Mr. Durrette's basic views and values have remained steady over the long haul. The Baliles campaign obviously is arguing the opposite. It seems to us that both sides are operating well within the bounds of fair political comment. This is the kind of argument that is often and rightly at the heart of a political campaign. Democrat Baliles is campaigning as a man of steadiness, Republican Durrette as a man of innovation. It should not be surprising that the opposition is emphasizing the negative flip-side -- lack of imagination, flightiness -- of each of these qualities.
Voters know that spots are prepared for the candidates and are not to be taken as neutral testimony any more than ads for soap or rental cars. These spots are not neutral but, with the exception noted, are fair enough representations of the cases for each candidate and provide voters with some of the information and arguments they need to make their decisions.