WHAT OTHERS SAY: Indistinct lines divide public service, campaign ads

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:12 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Life, a co-worker recently observed, is a gray area.

The characterization was made during a discussion of the indistinct dividing line separating public service advertising from campaign commercials.

Two statewide officials have come under political fire for appearing in public service announcements on television in this election year.

The ads deal with services or issues pertinent to their respective offices. But, invariably, the added name recognition and face time promote re-election.

Magnifying "official" announcements as elections approach is hardly a new practice. Officials from both major political parties have done it and/or complained about it.

For the record, the officials now under fire are Treasurer Clint Zweifel and Attorney General Chris Koster, both first-term Democrats eligible for re-election this year. The complaints, as expected, are from state Republican Party officials.

Differing interpretations in this gray area are not unlike the controversy that arises over ballot proposals. Local governments are permitted to "inform," but not influence, voters — resulting in another indistinct line.

Efforts to cut through the haze bring potential problems of their own.

For example, one approach would be to eliminate state government public service announcements in an election year or when an office-holder files for re-election. That approach, however, is tantamount to conceding a public service announcement is not in the public interest and primarily is a campaign ad.

Another approach would be to eliminate from public service announcements any reference to or picture of the elected officeholder. The downside is the elected official often bolsters the credibility of the public service announcement's message.

In the final analysis, the public must determine whether an official sincerely is attempting to communicate a worthwhile message or a disingenuous candidate is using tax dollars for political gain.

The public is becoming more savvy politically, and astute candidates realize duping voters is increasingly more difficult.

Political smokescreens are risky business among voters capable of seeing clearly.

Copyright Jefferson City News Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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