Reviewing the Recap

Kevin Blanchard had an analysis piece on the fiber-optic referendum that’s worth noting if you missed it. It loosely recaps the campaign, focusing on the last months and on incomplete filings from the state ethics commission and reports from the groups involved.

Though the full story of the last days has yet to be told, the misinformation campaign at the end was very real and the direct mail pieces–something I covered in an earlier post during the heat of the campaign was profoundly and intentionally misleading. The mention of them here, in a retrospective analysis piece is the first time, to my knowledge that they have been mentioned in the press. Blanchard notes that the full force of the disinformation campaign that was seen in the Tri-Cities, for instance, did not fall on Lafayette:

While LUS officials expressed fear early in the campaign that their future competitors, BellSouth and Cox Communications, would bombard the electorate with negative advertising — something that’s happened when other communities have held similar votes — that never happened in Lafayette

While there is truth in this broad claim it tends to focus solely on quantity and to pass on the meaning—and the actual effectiveness of what did happen. It isn’t that the disinformation campaign didn’t happen; it did. It isn’t that the campaign waged didn’t fit the pattern of the campaign in other places—because it did. It differed only in the overall size and intensity, how early it started, and—most visibly—the mixed sponsorship. Just how closely the disinformation campaign followed the pattern laid out in other places is well worth noticing. In the Tri-cities, for instance, almost cartoonish mass mailer pieces that made unsubstantiated (because untrue) claims about taxes, debt, and inevitable failure. In Lafayette last minute over-excited mailers made unsubstantiated (because untrue) claims about taxes, debt, and inevitable failure. In the Tri-Cities push polling was a feature of the campaign. You will recall the same about Lafayette. Similarly, the condemnation of a columnist in one of the local newspapers received prominent advertising play, especially when the columnist appeared to have ties to the opposition that weren’t publicly acknowledged. In the Tri-Cities the columnist picked up contract work. In Lafayette he wrote for the Heartland Institute and allowed the opposition he endorsed to help author his work. In Lafayette his final editorial was transmuted into a full page ad for the opposition.

Blanchard notices this ad in a pointed way, saying:

BellSouth ran only one ad, reprinting a column written by Times of Acadiana Business Manager Eric Benjamin that warned voters about the dangers of LUS’ plan. The column was published on the Wednesday before the election. The full-page ad appeared Friday.

The point, as I take it, is that the ad space was bought before the editorial appeared. BellSouth knew that a fresh, relatively unscathed editorial repeating its position would be available to insert into the traditional media silence before an election. (The previous Benjamin editorial which might have been more reasonably timed for inclusion had been the subject of brutal critique by the Independent on the grounds that an anti-fiber editorial co-authored by the anti-fiber opposition was, well, a wee bit improper. This later tidbit brings up new ethical questions about collusion.) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that BellSouth knew the editorial was coming and knew that it was something to which they could happily devote a full page of advertising. Twice, on both Friday and Saturday.

That traditional media pre-election silence, which both papers observed, meant that no questions were raised about the placement of this ad and, much more seriously, that the two last minute misinformation flyers and the automated phone calling went completely unreported. The tradition exists, no doubt, to prevent unfair last minute accusations from being repeated by the media. But it serves equally to shield last minute deceptions and distortion from any examination. It is clear that development of targeted direct mail and market segmented automated calling regimes into powerful tools that can put different messages into specific populations in a way that is invisible to the rest of voters changes the equasion. The policy of discreet silence may now serve more to deny the public crucial information about how the campaign is being run in the crucial last 48 hours than it does to shield them from unscrupulous accusations being repeated by the media. An article like this one, one that emphasizes the incumbents’ quietness without dealing with cacophony of its allies exacerbates the problem. Someone reading our local print media would have to come away with the impression that nothing much, and certainly nothing unprincipled happened in those hours.

But that impression would be wrong.