Adwatch: Amateurish mudslinging starts early

By on August 22, 2016

 The election season, which traditionally kicks off after Labor Day, is often called the “silly season.”

It’s also the time nasty campaign ads hit the airwaves, the newspapers and our mailboxes.

Things started early this year — it’s only Aug. 22 — and the first such ads are already hitting the mail, in all their full-throated 8.5-by-11 glory.

This year, the staff of the Voice is going to keep a wary eye on negative ads, particularly those involving state offices and local boards.

We won’t be taking sides: Any ad our team deems “over the line” is subject to scolding.

Our first such nod goes to the Republican Party of North Carolina for their mailer focusing on Brownie Futrell, the Democratic candidate running against incumbent Republican State Sen. Bill Cook, who represents District 1.

Please take note the ad did not come from Cook’s campaign. It was paid for by the N.C. Republican Party and carries the disclaimer, “Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

We’ll take them at their word.

Why did this advertisement earn our approbation?


Providing no evidence at all, the mailer strongly insinuates Futrell is corrupt. Or crooked. Or both. And the GOP should know better.

Cook was unmercifully attacked by out-of-state interests in the 2012 election, including one television commercial and mailer claiming Cook was in favor of dumping imported refuse on our beaches.

He rightly complained about the tenor of those attacks.

But the GOP mailing seems to fall into a similar category and in fact, crosses mid-field and moves into the red zone of negative ads.

On one side of the document, a headline blares “Everybody is sick of crooked politicians.”

Beneath that are three head shots of former North Carolina elected officials: U.S. Senator John Edwards, U.S. Rep. Frank Balance and Gov. Mike Easley.

Stamped across each picture are phrases in all caps; for Edwards it’s “INVESTIGATED BY THE FBI”, while Balance and Easley are tagged with a “CONVICTED FELON” stamp.

 Flip the card over and the message is even more ominous.

In the upper right corner, a photo focuses on a suited man’s outstretched arm, his hand fanning hundred dollars bills as if to offer them.

In the bottom left, a black and white picture of Brownie Futrell is placed, hands perhaps outstretched and if one’s gazes follows from the “moneyed hand” to Futrell. The image leaves the impression those Benjamins are heading Futrell’s way.

The message between the pictures reads: “For years, Brownie Futrell bankrolled the campaigns of corrupt Democrat politicians. He even gave convicted felons Frank Ballance and Mike Easley thousands of dollars.”

Next we are shown pictures of two campaign report forms, one showing Futrell donated $1,000 to Easley and another evidencing two $500 contributions to Balance.

We are then warned: “Now Brownie Futrell wants us to elect him to the State Senate.”

Below that sentence we are told “We don’t need corrupt Democrats back in charge in Raleigh. We don’t need Brownie Futrell in the State Senate.”

Good grief.

This is an example of connecting dots that defy any trail of evidence.

The fact that Futrell, a Democrat, donated money to three politicians who later ran afoul of campaign finance laws and other infractions in no way proves Futrell was aware these three men were engaged in suspect or illegal activities.

In fact, the photo “evidence” used by the GOP — snapshots of campaign finance reports showing Futrell’s contributions — indicate that in the case of Balance, Futrell’s donation occurred two years before Ballance’s misdeeds surfaced, and almost a decade before Easley’s problems were made public.

And while the mailer states Futrell “bankrolled” these corrupt campaigns, all we are shown are $2,000 of donations. Hardly the stuff of the Koch brothers or George Soros.

Using the term “bankrolled” is over-the-top rhetoric.

In the case of both Easley and Ballance, numerous well-known and respected individuals contributed to their various campaigns.

In particular, a number of local business and civic leaders, including Dare Republicans and respected Pasquotank Democrats donated to all three campaigns. Easley received donations and support from a number of registered Dare County Republicans who knew him as a result of his Rocky Mount and Northeast North Carolina roots.

Likewise, PACs in the building, retail and other trades contributed to Easley, entities that are equally prone to contribute to Republicans.

Are they also guilty of aiding and abetting convicted felons?

At the bottom of the flip side of the mailer is an example of the worst part of this ad, as we read, “We don’t need corrupt Democrats back in charge in Raleigh. We don’t need Brownie Futrell in the State Senate.”

At this point in my life, there is very little that occurs in politics that surprises me, much less causes me to say to myself “Did they really just say that? Did they really just say this person is (a crook, dishonest, corrupt individual—or choose your own pejorative).

But those last two lines struck me as one of the ugliest and unethical charges I’ve seen in a long time.

Nothing in this mailer comes close to proving Brownie Futrell is anything other than an honorable person. It certainly falls far short of even creating doubts about Futrtell’s integrity, much less convincing a reasonable person his name should be linked to words such as “corrupt” and “crooked.”

In fact, if I were to make moral judgments based on this mailer, my finger would be pointing to the folks at the N.C .GOP who conceived, designed and distributed this propaganda.

In 2012, I was appalled at the lengths out-of-state environmental groups went to in order to cast Cook as the devil incarnate when it came to environmental issues. And he was right to cast those ads as vicious misrepresentations of his policies and character.

Cook has done good things for his district — his work on Oregon and Hatteras Inlet, commercial fishing issues, helping to right North Carolina’s fiscal ship — and the GOP would do well to remind voters of those facts.

Futrell and Cook will have policy issues where they differ and within reason —  differences in that arena are fair game for a reasonable offensive attack.

Let’s hope the mailer featured here is the exception rather than the rule in the State Senate District 1 race.

More recent mailers from the NC GOP have focused on Cook’s accomplishments so there is reason for hope.




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