Some positive steps against negative campaign tactics

Using a film clip of an atomic explosion paired with shots of a child pleading, ''I want to go on living,'' a 1982 candidate for the US Senate attempted to capitalize on his opponent's stand against a nuclear weapons freeze.

By imposing the words ''prostitution'' and ''pornography'' across a large picture of her opponent's face, a congressional candidate, last fall, sought to brand him as soft on vice.

Such instances of negative or deceptive campaign advertising are of increasing concern in political circles across the United States.

Thus far, however, those attempting to grapple with the problem are anything but united as to the best approach and how far to go.

While support for tough standards of campaign conduct are being pushed in several states, some close to the scene, like Phyllis Brotman, president of Image Dynamics, a Baltimore-based political campaign consulting firm, contend that such mandatory compliance ''will not work.''

Instead of statutory restrictions on what can be said or done by a candidate (or in his behalf), she favors increased efforts to get candidates to agree voluntarily to a code of campaign ethics.

Mrs. Brotman, past president of the American Association of Political Consultants, emphasizes that members of her organization are fully committed to a set of standards that ban deceptive advertising and unscrupulous campaign conduct, including ''dirty tricks.''

Because of the large number of people involved in campaigns, the suggestion that any kind of governmental body could effectively police the content of campaign material and tactics ''is unrealistic,'' she maintains.

Bob Stern, general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, holds that such an informal self-policing system would not be an effective deterrent to campaign distortions and intentional misstatements by candidates.

A better, or at least more productive, arrangement, he suggests, would be to provide for the predisclosure of campaign literature at least 72 hours in advance of its use. This would discourage, if not prevent, deliberate distortions intended to mislead voters, he explains.

With both sides agreeing to abide by such restrictions, a more complex code might not be needed, Mr. Stern asserts.

The increased attention being given deceptive political tactics springs from recognition of the need to correct ''something which has a detrimental effect on public confidence in the political process,'' says Candace Romig of the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL).

Besides misleading voters, she warns, such campaign abuses unfairly damage the reputations of opposing candidates or public officials and tend to make qualified people leery of entering the political arena.

The Brotman and Stern recommendations are among a broad range of alternatives being weighed by the NCSL as ways of curbing deceptive or negative political advertising, Miss Romig says.

Lawmakers and their aides from around the nation are expected to spend considerable time at the organization's annual meeting next August discussing the matter.

Meanwhile, proposals to discourage, if not prevent, various types of political advertising are under consideration in at least five states - California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington - and in Congress.

US Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin and 52 House colleagues, including members of both parties, are pushing a ''clean-campaign act,'' embracing public funding in congressional elections.

To protect candidates from attack by independent groups such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the measure, also supported by Common Cause, would require the news media to make equal time or space available for response, at no cost to the candidate.

In California, where misleading political advertising has been a particular challenge, state lawmakers last year approved a fair-campaign-practices code. It includes no penalties, however, for those who agree to abide by the letter and then overstep. Critics of the measure question its effectiveness, since it does not even publicly embarrass those who decline to accept the code in the conduct of their campaigns.

Pending legislation to bring public campaign financing to California would deny such funding assistance to any candidate failing to subscribe to the ethics code.

Another potential step involves a proposed amendment to the state constitution. It would provide for the automatic removal from office of anyone convicted of libeling or slandering the opposition.

The proposal will be on the June 1984 state primary ballot.

Connecticut legislators are considering a voluntary campaign-ethics code similar to the one in California. A fair campaign practices commission is proposed in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

A proposal in Washington State seeks not only to outlaw the theft of campaign materials or assets, but also to forbid the misrepresentation of polls, bribery of campaign workers, and eavesdropping or wiretapping by, or on behalf of, a candidate. At least 17 states now have on the books measures dealing with misleading statements intended to impugn the character of a political candidate. But fewer than half of them spell out what is prohibited.

Most of these measures, however, have been on the books for some years. In some instances, enforcement has been a problem, often because of lack of teeth in the laws.

A recently completed NCSL survey found that 23 states now require the listing of persons responsible for political literature or advertising.

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