Candidates' websites are as shallow as their TV commercials

October 20, 2010 

My first theory of human social discourse is that 90 percent of what is presented as information is actually opinion. Where politics is concerned, that may be closer to 99 percent.

I watched one hour of network television recently. During that time I felt battered and abused by tawdry political ads, each delivered in a fierce attack mode, condemning not so much the opponents’ political positions as their basic human integrity.

This candidate lies. That candidate has betrayed us. Even the photos that political enemies show of each other are grossly unflattering — as if to declare, not only is my opponent wrong, but ugly, too.

Alas, such is the nature of the televised medium. Looks do matter more than content. TV is more effective at grabbing a person’s attention than at holding it, so ads come off about as subtle as a blow to the head. In politicobabble, there’s no room for nuance.

When the Internet arrived, civic-minded individuals of all political persuasions heralded it as a new medium for open democratic dialog, where diverse points of view can be considered at a thoughtful pace, where context and complexity can be addressed. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, though.

Let’s take a brief look at the highest profile race in Washington: the hot Senate contest between incumbent Patty Murray and rival Dino Rossi. Both have campaign home pages, www.pattymurray.com and www.dinorossi.com, respectively.

Might a truly undecided voter find a more substantive and enlightening presentation of the candidate’s positions on these pages?

No, not really. That’s not the point of those pages. Log on to either site, and the first thing clamoring for your attention are links to pages where you can “volunteer,” “join today,” “sign up,” or “take action,” and multiple opportunities for you to “donate” or “contribute” (even to visit an “online store”). These are not sites for persons seeking information; rather, they are like online fan clubs, for adoring people who’ve already made up their minds, or for energizing like-minded people who haven’t yet jumped on the bandwagon.

Both candidates also have Facebook and Twitter pages. (I find it ironic that what started as a breezy, college students’ social network has been co-opted by politicians, and even corporations seeking to humanize themselves. Heck, even General Motors has a Facebook page today.)

Here’s a couple of penetrating tweets from Rossi’s: “A day full of rallies! Great to see everyone in Vancouver and Longview!” and “Thanks for coming out to Centralia. We still have Aberdeen and Shelton to go on the schedule today.”

Not to be outdone, we learn on Facebook that Murray’s hobbies are: “Hiking, fishing, enjoying time with my family,” and she got hundreds of birthday wishes posted on her “wall.”

Each site does feature one nondescript link across the banner to “issues.” For the record, Rossi lists just seven issues, and Murray 14. In either case, the text is little more than bullet point statements — talking points — devoid of analysis, reflection, and point-counterpoint defense. In short, I find that the candidates’ own Internet sites contain little more than the same kind of simplistic rallying cries and shallow propaganda that they fabricate for their TV ads.

While the Internet is a superb resource for communication, entertainment, and commerce, it remains extremely dubious as a source for news or information.

Certainly, the candidates’ own Web pages provide for social affirmation, kiss up to their audiences, and bring in donors galore, but the content is all about either cheerleading or mudslinging.

I’ll wager that none of the visionaries who foresaw the Internet as an instrument for social activism imagined it working (or not working) like this.

Gregg Sapp, a freelance writer in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” will be published next spring by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press. He can be reached at sappgregg@aol.com.

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