Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Dunning of Dinning

I find the dirty tricks and misinformation campaigns the most difficult part of politics. Jim Dinning is taking the offence about some alleged misinformation about his intentions and “facts” about him that he says are false. The usual political consultant “wisdom” about such things is they ought not be repeated because doing so merely reinforces the original negative message and impressions.

The textbook example was the allegations about Richard Nixon being a “crook” and his numerous protestations to the contrary saying “I am not a crook” served only to add to the doubts in the public’s mind about his being fit to govern. In the end, with Watergate, he turned out to be a crook. The collective wisdom (or pooled ignorance) ever since is for the candidate not to repeat the remarks or the allegations because it merely serve to reinforce the original negative impressions…but that is what Jim is doing here and the media, including this Blog, is potentially simply reinforcing the negative story.

It comes down to what messages stick with the busy disengaged or the only partially engaged public from such “news” and “allegations.” We seem to hook on to bad news and remember it – even if we only vaguely recall what it was about - but we do seem to "remember" that it was negative – and that is the problem.

The difficulty is how our minds work and the kind of “attention” we pay in our overly mediated world. When you are told “do not think of a white horse” what image comes into your mind? A white horse, of course! When that “message” gets repeated to us again and again, especially when we are not sufficiently engaged in the message or concerned much about its meaning, we get our original impressions reinforced. We seem to remember that the issue was negative more than we “hear” the correction or the rebuttal. By the candidate repeating the message in rebuttal or in a correction, the theory is the original negative message is what gets reinforced in the public mind and not the correction. That is why correction and apologies in the media are nice to have but almost totally ineffectual in changing the original incorrect perception as to the “facts.”

The same kind of thing happened in 1992 leadership race on the Betkowski and Klein campaigns. There were whispered allegations throughout the countryside that if Betkowski won she would be shutting down rural hospitals. It was widely promoted and vigorously denied but the damage was done. Rural Albertans started to fear what would happen to them if the province were run by, what some called, “that uppity educated city woman.” Ouch! Ironically that fear was not unfounded because that is exactly what Klein did do to many rural hospitals once he was in power.

There were many unsubstantiated claims by anonymous callers that Klein was guilty of spousal abuse. I know, I took many of the calls while working on the Betkowski campaign. None of these callers would give me their names, their lawyer’s name or would commit to swearing an affidavit to evidence their allegations. Each of them wanted me to be reassured however they were honest and forthcoming folks just trying to do the right thing. Such is the downside of politics. I know that Premier Klien is hurt by those allegations even today.

So in this context Jim Dinning is posting rebuttals and corrections about incorrect allegations on his website and the media are writing stories about the “facts” and his responses. I wonder if the times and people have changed since the days of Richard Nixon or is Dinning’s approach merely reinforcing the negative impressions and not effectively correcting the record.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. Damned politics.