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Electoral ethics examined

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Presidential campaigns are “a fistfight in business suits,” American Studies professor Robert Schmuhl said during a lecture about ethical voting Tuesday.

“Anything goes, figuratively speaking. Brass knuckles, switch blades, and sucker punches are commonly used political techniques,” Schmuhl said of the competitive – and oftentimes vicious nature – of the race to win the White House.

Titled “Ethical Implications of Political Communication in Electing a President,” Schmuhl’s lecture focused on the role of ethics in campaigning and picking a candidate.

While it’s expected that some candidates will play dirty, the constant scrutiny of the Internet and the media shines a spotlight on the ethical – or unethical – behaviors of key players, Schmuhl said.

“Today, a countless array of outlets in print, online and broadcast creates this 24/7 environment,” he said.

The constant stream of information can both help and hinder voters’ decision making. Quick access information is a plus, but separating truth from opinion can be difficult for many people, he said.

“To a certain degree and somewhat paradoxically, it is easier to know more about a candidate and a campaign, but it is more challenging to acquire the necessary knowledge to judge the candidate,” Schumhl said. “Every candidate has a Web site where one can find more than you would ever want to know but much of this, what we now label ‘spin,’ is information with a bias or slant.”

Schumhl said voters have an obligation to sift through biased information and make an informed voting decision.

“Before conferring the power of the presidency on someone,” he said. “We the people have the power of holding the candidate accountable.”

Schumhl then recommended several unbiased Web sites to help voters do that. One of those Web sites, FactChecker.com, can be found on the Washington Post home page. FactChecker evaluates different statements from politicians and uses a “Pinocchio” rating system in which analysts rate the veracity of claims on a scale of one to three Pinocchios.

The system, which gives slightly erroneous claims a single Pinocchio and significantly erroneous ones three, can help voters learn more about the ethical behaviors of certain candidates.

“In pursuing the truth, you as a voter learn [which candidates] are conducting themselves ethically,” Schumhl said.

And while the excessive media coverage of political figures can confuse the public at times, Schmuhl said they are still at an advantage over the candidates.

“There is so much coverage of one kind or another”, he said, “that now there is a sense that whatever a political figure says becomes [fair game for scrutiny].”

So it’s up to the general public to scrutinize.

“Voters have the political and moral duty to investigate candidates and their aims,” he said.

The Center for Ethics and Culture sponsored Schmuhl’s lecture as part of Ethics Week.