Obfuscation, ignorance help keep voters in dark

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David Crisp

Few stories I have written have been so dispiriting as my June 9 article on cable TV ads criticizing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It wasn’t that I was unable to come up with the source of the ads, which were placed by a shadowy group called Protect America’s Consumers. Reporters who have tried harder than I did to find out just who this group is also failed. What bugged me was that there seems to be no way to determine the source. In today’s political world, anything goes.

The ads claim to argue for reforming the CFPB, but it isn’t hard to hear between the lines that the real goal is simply to get rid of it. To accomplish that, the ads ask you to call U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who serves on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

If the people behind those ads really want to get rid of the CFPB, why not just say so? And why not say who they are?

Both of those things matter. If I were to start seeing TV ads that said drinking Pepsi would cause my brains to leak out of my ears, I would want to know if Coca-Cola sponsored them. That would tell me a lot more than reading scientific papers about the effect of soft drinks on brain leakage.

We expect a certain amount of flimflam in normal commercial ads. Just last week I got a piece of mail from a well-known and respected Billings auto dealer. You have no doubt seen similar ads: They include a scratch-off number that tells you have won a prize, which you can claim at the dealer or an offsite location.

When you get there, you learn that you have won a $5 cash prize or gift card. And, by the way, would you like to buy a car?

This one was a little different. The number I scratched off was matched with a $1,000 prize. I could use a thousand bucks. Only after wading through a thicket of extraordinarily illegible type did I find this sentence: “Scratching off a winning combination does not guarantee you have won that particular prize.” In other words, here’s your $5 gift card.

We are so used to such petty chicanery that we scarcely notice it. Businesses can pull stunts like this for decades and remain pillars of the community.

But somehow we expect more—or at least hope for more—from political advertising. Let’s not be naïve: Negative political ads have dominated the airwaves during campaign season since the Johnson administration.

But what’s happening now feels different, in part because of Supreme Court decisions that have made it much harder for voters to find out who is spending money for what, but also because voters themselves are changing. According to Time magazine, a new study by Microsoft Corp. shows that the average human attention span has dropped since the year 2000 from 12 seconds to about eight. The attention span of goldfish is nine seconds.

This failure to focus leads to such debacles as the U.S. Senate’s failure on Monday to pass any of four gun control bills in the wake of the Orlando, Fla., shooting. Neither Tester nor Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., distinguished himself on the Senate floor.

Daines voted for a bill that would restrict sales to suspected terrorists but only if the government could demonstrate “probable cause” in three days. As many critics have pointed out, if the government had that kind of evidence it would arrest the suspect, not just block a gun sale.

Tester voted with Daines against a bill that would have eliminated the loophole that allows many gun sales without a background check at gun shows and on the internet. Until that loophole is closed, potential jihadists with cell phones have open season.

These are not black-and-white issues. Suspected terrorist and no-fly lists are filled with errors and excesses; cleaning the lists up must be part of any permanent reform. Giving those who show up as suspects a reasonable opportunity to appeal is essential in a free society.

Still, given that upwards of 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks, including a large majority of Republicans, you’d think that the Senate’s failure to find a reasonable compromise would endanger a bunch of Senate careers.

But that isn’t likely. Distraction is the menu’s daily special. Orlando is over, but the shootings go on, and we flit from one catastrophe to another.

As I was putting this column together, the phone rang. On the line was a recording from Protect America’s Consumers, telling me how awful the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is.

Press one to tell Sen. Tester all about it, the message said.

I held on, hoping to connect to a human being who actually represents Protect America’s Consumers. Nothing but an empty hum.

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