Saturday, September 13, 2008

Campaign Ads and Lies: Is the press doing enough?

Ever since McCain came out with his Celeb ad (the one that featured Britney Spears and Paris Hilton), I’ve been hooked on campaign ads. After following them closely for a couple months, one characteristic has been made crystal clear: their ability to mislead.

The fact is that campaign ads are perhaps the clearest avenues of misinformation available to a candidate. How so?

1) They’re stealthy. Campaign ads can sneak up on you at anytime, in the middle of your favorite show or sporting event. They catch you with your critical guard down in the comfort of your own living room. They’re not prefaced by news anchors and arrive in your living room 100% intact, free of disclaimers.

2) It is a multimedia experience. Unlike a stump speech, a campaign ad consists of more than words. Music, images, video clips and voice overs can all be used to mislead. A campaign ad doesn’t necessarily need to say something untrue to mislead. McCain’s “Celebrity” ad never explicitly compared Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to Obama, but through the use of images it was clearly implied.

3) The message is delivered by a third party. Very rarely is the candidate speaking directly to the camera in the campaign ad. The candidate and the issues are discussed in the third person by a narrator and then the message is endorsed by the candidate at the end. This makes the message appear more objective. Personally, I’d be more skeptical of information coming straight from the candidate’s mouth.

NY Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed McCain’s recent propensity for misinformation in his op-ed titled “Blizzard of Lies” published on September 11th. One of the lies he concentrates on is a McCain ad that claims that Obama wants to teach sex-education to kindergarteners. He writes:

“Or take the story of Mr. Obama’s alleged advocacy of kindergarten sex-ed. In reality, he supported legislation calling for ‘age and developmentally appropriate education’; in the case of young children, that would have meant guidance to help them avoid sexual predators.”

I’m sure we all agree that if an ad contains lies, this fact should be shouted from the rooftops. In this case, it certainly wasn’t kept a secret. The New York Times published an article pointing out the distortion and McCain even got called out on it during his visit to The View. Nonetheless, he still claimed that it was true. How the hell can McCain get away with this? I think Krugman hits the nail on the head:

“Well, they’re probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being ‘balanced’ at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn’t say that he’s wrong, it reports that ‘some Democrats say’ that he’s wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.”

Maybe the press isn’t doing enough. This theory implies that for McCain it is worth it to lie because the repercussions (being called a liar) don’t outweigh the benefits (people believing the lie). By their nature, campaign ads are already especially adept at deception and McCain will continue to use them to sling mud until the press really lays into him. Some coverage isn’t enough. If you search “campaign ads” on New York Times or Washington Post, you’ll find the vast majority of campaign ad analysis discussed in their political blogs and opinion pages. Since when don’t lies qualify as hard news? Maybe it’s the reluctance of the press to engage seriously with something as low-brow as a TV ad.

Other ideas?


M. Dery said...

Can't agree that the press doesn't sink its teeth into campaign ads. The Lehrer newshour usually trots out Annenberg's Kathleen Hall Jamieson to read the entrails of campaign ads, and the Times, at least, truth-squads them now and then. More to the point, I think McCain's calculus has more to do with the assumption that the right has been so effective, in recent years, in spreading the gospel of "liberal media bias" that GOP candidates can safely assume that when the hated New York Times---the Pravda on the Hudson, in conservative eyes---points out their errors of fact, the faithful will believe the candidate, not the "biased" media. File under Goebbels, Joseph/ "Big Lie."

Audrey said...

That's similar to Linda Feldman's reporting on truth squads. She questions how much impact journalists have when they try to correct misinformation.

According to a recent study, voters may cling even harder to their candidate's beliefs, if the media refutes that belief. One political science researcher framed it this way:

“The argument we make in the paper is that people are counterarguing in their heads,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Duke University and one of the researchers. “They’re coming up with reasons to disagree with the factual claim, and actually convincing themselves more than they would have believed otherwise.”

The reference to Goebbels opens up a huge turn on campaign ads. Who would think that our Have-it-your-way, free market media would operate so similarly to Nazi propagandists?

Audrey said...

Here's Feldman's article: