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Attack ads the superhighway to divisiveness

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The modern-day nabobs of negativity — Democratic and Republican incumbents and candidates — have begun mud-slinging so vicious that even pioneer slime-slinger Newt Gingrich would be ashamed (well, maybe not).

Attack ads serve no member of the electorate well, and they ought to stop.

Wednesday’s New York Times carried the news clearly in a front-pager: “Don’t be nice” said the headline. The news peg leaned on analysis of 30 new campaign ads — 27 of them negative. Both parties say that 90 percent of the ads we’ll be subjected to from now to Nov. 7 will be negative. The Washington Post earlier this month reported that the National Republican Congressional Campaign will spend $50 million on negative ads by Nov. 7.

And, of course, to produce negative ads the spinners have to dig for dirt. Says The Post:

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has enlisted veteran party strategist Terry Nelson to run a campaign that will coordinate with Senate Republicans on ads that similarly will rely on the best of the worst that researchers have dug up on Democrats. The first ad run by the new RNC effort criticizes Ohio Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) for voting against proposals designed to toughen border protection and deport illegal immigrants.

I wonder if slime searchers are using the same tactics HP used to get the goods on its leak-prone board of directors.

The Democrats aren’t innocent bystanders in the onslaught of attack ads. But the GOP has a greater need for it. Says the Los Angeles Times:

Negative campaigning is hardly new, and Democrats are dishing dirt against Republicans too. But mudslinging is crucial to the Republican plan for this year’s midterm elections, because the party’s hold on power will probably hinge on shifting attention from the unpopular war in Iraq and other national issues that cut against them.

“When people are looking at national issues that are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former Republican National Committee chief of staff. “You’ve got to play the field’s conditions. They demand very tough tactics.”

We abhor it, we wring our hands over it, we scream that it’s debasing politics and producing an ideologically divided electorate that knows very little about the “real issues” in any particular campaign. So why do the Democratic and Republican committees continue to infect the airways with it?

Because, sayeth The Times, it works:

Mr. Reynolds [Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York] burst out laughing when asked why he was not using more positive advertisements. “If they moved things to the extent that negative ads move things, there would be more of them,” he said.

Well, why is that? Why do negative ads “move things”?

“Negative ads are more likely to talk about policy than positive ads,” said Joel Rivlin, deputy director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which monitors political advertising. “How else do you find out about the flaws of a candidate besides a negative ad?”

That’s too simplistic. It assumes that the electorate — you and me and Aunt Edna — should sit passively by while a drumbeat of crap flows out of the TV set. It assumes that’s the only way to learn about policy and character flaws.

As my regular readers know, I’ve been absorbed in the campaign in New York congressional District 29 to determine whether the sitting Republican incumbent or the Democratic challenger will be left standing on Nov. 8. I haven’t seen a single TV ad from either of them, and I don’t want to. I’ve heard both speak. What they say and how they say it tells me more about them than their ads.

Voters who care about the health of the Republic ought to be pro-active. That’s what town meetings used to be — the voters closely questioning their elected officials and voting on the basis of what they learned. Anyone with access to a computer (a public library will do) can do his or her own research on a campaign.

I’ve used Web sites of the Center for Responsive Politics, the Federal Election Commission, Political Money Line, The Washington Post’s Congress Votes Database, Congresspedia at the Center for Media and Democracy, the Thomas legislative information service at the Library of Congress, the congressional newspaper The Hill and ABC News’ The Note.

I’ve used the campaign Web sites of the combatants, Rep. John R. “Randy” Kuhl (and his “official” site) and retired Navy Commander Eric Massa. Mr. Massa blogs at various sites including DailyKos; I read them. Several District 29 bloggers (cum grano salis) do well in following the race: I read The Rural Patriot and The Fighting 29th and a few others. Then, of course, there’s the Web sites of western New York dailies. (A lot of crap will be on Web sites, so use care. The Internet carries its own slew of attack ads, another topic for another time.)

I can’t rely on newspapers any more to provide the timely, pro-active coverage of this race. Their coverage is reactive. Given the importance of the race, I’d expect more analysis of the race and timely provision of what these guys say they stand for and what their actions reveal they stand for. Saying and doing are often two different concepts for politicians. Newspapers ought to more frequently call politicians out when the word does not match the deed.

To be fair, some newspapers (far too few) analyze attack ads for veracity. (See this example from Florida’s District 13 race.) But in these days of “maximize shareholder income” and shrinking editorial staffs, the reporting horsepower just isn’t there any more at many small- and medium-sized papers.

Attack ads aren’t new. John Quincy Adams, running poorly against Andrew Jackson in 1828, produced a pamphlet that said:

“General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British solders!” [See Lowell Sun story.]

But the immensity of the viciousness attack ads represent in modern politics defies logic. It will only increase as long as the goal of politics remains so overt: Get power and keep it.

The number and viciousness of attack ads will get worse. In this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Democratic Party has raised more than $350 million and the Republican Party more than $470 million. That’s going to spread more vile, such as the ads that said John McCain had a “black baby,” the Willie Horton attack ad that helped ruin Mike Dukakis’ presidential campaign in ’88, the “Harry and Louise” ad that attacked Bill Clinton’s health care proposals in ’93.

I object to the political duplicity and deception in these ads. I am far more interested in learning from candidates if they can do what they promise they will do — and how. That’s how I want to determine who will get my vote.

But even more insidious is the role of attack ads in sapping our national character. The tone such ads carry is divisive. They set us against each other.

Imagine a sentient alien arriving on Earth this week and watching televised attack ads for the next six weeks.

The alien will probably ask: “Why do Americans hate each other so much?”

How will we answer?


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 28, 2006 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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