The political television ad begins with an image of “We the People” from the U.S. Constitution, and then fades through a series of images of middle-class Americans at work and home.
The ad warns that Mitt Romney’s budget plan would hurt the middle class, while giving tax breaks to multimillionaires.
“We can’t rebuild America by tearing down the middle class,” concludes the 33-second spot, sponsored by Priorities USA Action, a super PAC.
Is the ad uncivil?
In the first effort of its kind, a consortium of Northeast Ohio universities and the Akron Beacon Journal is trying to measure the level of civility in political campaigns and to publish the results, beginning with today’s installment.
If anything is clear from the first attempt, it’s that civility can be fuzzy.
The evaluators gave “We the People” an overall civility rating of 2.85, which leans slightly to the uncivil side, with 5 being maximum incivility and zero most civil.
In the first round, the panel graded four political statements or ads, all having to do with the presidential campaign, and the grades ranged from 2.19 to 2.85.
John Green, executive director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, who is heading the civility index project, said the results reflect the diverse group of evaluators looking at the ads or statements, and also could mean that the batch chosen in this round wasn’t obviously one way or the other.
He predicted the results, which will be released twice weekly through the presidential campaign, may vary depending on what’s happening in the campaign and in the country. This week, he noted, the 9/11 anniversary may have tempered the ads and statements.
“That’s why we wanted to do this over the entire campaign,” Green said. “The intensity varies.”
The Ohio Civility Project is a collaboration of the University of Akron, Cleveland State University and the University of Mount Union. It is part of a larger civility effort under way involving the three universities, the local faith community and the Beacon Journal.
Green led the effort to develop the index and is overseeing the process of sending material to evaluators, aggregating the results and providing them to the Beacon Journal.
The Beacon Journal will publish the results in the newspaper and at ohio.com/civilityindex. Readers will be able to view them all online and take the same test as the evaluators.
“We don’t expect everyone to agree with us,” Green said. “We think this is a good way to get the discussion going.”
Green and the evaluators, who include professors, ministers, politicians and journalists, hope the evaluations ultimately will make political discussion more productive.
“Incivility needs to be out,” said the Rev. Ron Fowler, a retired Akron pastor who is among the 24 evaluators. “Civility needs to be in.”
How it was done
The ads and statements were graded by answering three questions, each on a five-point scale:
• Does the statement contain offensive language, derogatory comments or attack the motives of another person?
• Does the statement misrepresent, belittle or dismiss another person’s opinion?
• Does the statement interrupt political discourse, disrupt deliberation, or escalate conflict in a dialogue with other people?
The evaluators’ grades were averaged, resulting in an overall rating.
The questions were developed by a panel consisting of Green, the Rev. Mark Ford of the Love Akron Network, Beacon Journal Editor Bruce Winges, Dan Moulthrop of the Civic Commons, Daniel Coffey and Michael Kohler of UA, Stuart Mendel of Cleveland State and Harry Paidas from Mount Union.
Focus groups conducted by Alice Rodgers of Rodgers Marketing Research and polling by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research were used to test the standards.
The first round
The reactions of the diverse group of evaluators illustrate the differing views of what is civil.
Here are the four tested statements and ads:
• A Romney campaign statement in response to comments by Vice President Joe Biden related to Romney’s Medicare plans, which said Biden “knowingly and deliberately leveled false and discredited attacks.” Overall rating of 2.85. “Not much here,” one evaluator commented. Another evaluator said the statement “appears to be somewhat valid,” but is “too harsh.”
• An Obama campaign reaction to insinuation by Romney that Obama might take God off of coins. The reaction said in part, “The president believes as much that God should be taken off of a coin as he does that aliens will attack Florida.” Overall rating of 2.85. One evaluator said this was a “stupid thing to say” that “says more about the speaker than the target.” Another evaluator said “using comments on faith or alleged lack of is an all-too-common emotional poison dart.”
• The Priorities USA “We the People” ad (mentioned above). Overall rating of 2.85. One evaluator said, “It’s rather difficult to provide a good answer to these.” Another called the ad “Obama class warfare,” but said Romney “needs to clarify his positions on taxes.” Another said the ad “misrepresents Romney/Ryan’s position.”
• The Romney campaign ad “Give me a Break,” illustrating former President Bill Clinton’s change in viewpoint on Obama between the 2008 primary, when Obama was Hillary Clinton’s opponent, to now. Overall rating of 2.19. One evaluator said the “quiet tone masks the utter stupidity of the premise of the ad.” Another said, “Like this one — shows how Clinton has changed his song.” Another noted, “What we don’t know is what Clinton’s ‘give me a break’ quote refers to. It may be germane to the point or it may be taken completely out of context.”
The two teams of evaluators include many high-profile Ohioans, including some from the Akron area. Fowler and retired U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula are on the panel that will judge a new batch that will be published Sunday.
Fowler, who is working part time at Kent State University, has a long history in Akron of promoting collaborative efforts, particularly regarding race relations.
“This is a natural extension of what has been a regular concern of mine,” he said.
Regula, a Republican who was known as a moderate able to work with his colleagues from across the aisle, thinks the ads and statements in the presidential race have already gotten “rather nasty.”
“This will not be a presidential campaign noted for civility,” he predicted.
Regula is hoping the civility index will make a difference but said, “I’m not holding my breath.”
Green is hoping the civility index will take off like the fact-checking tool PolitiFact used by newspapers across the country to gauge the truthfulness of political statements.
“We are not as interested in truthfulness as we are the tone of the comments and the language being used,” he said. “The long-term goal is for the civility index to lead candidates to behave in a civil fashion.”
Editor Winges said the Beacon Journal, which is in the midst of a yearlong series of stories focused on civility, was happy to offer its website as a place to show the evaluation results and “get this information out to as many people as we can.”
“We think this is something that needs to be done,” he said.