The media's counterproductive focus on negative campaigning
It's getting awfully hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television without seeing a news report about the presidential campaign turning negative. It often seems the media consider the tone of the campaign more important than the collapsing economy, the war, our continued failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and the Bush administration's apparent disdain for the Constitution -- combined.
Before we go any further, let me be clear: I'm not saying that negative campaigning isn't as bad as the media makes it out to be.
I'm saying negative campaigning is essential to American democracy.
See, for voters to make good decisions, they have to have good information. And, unfortunately, candidates aren't in the habit of telling voters things they've done (or plan to do) that are unpopular, or of running ads about the flaws in their own proposals. And since voters need to know the candidates' weaknesses as well as their strengths, and the disadvantages to their proposals, they need somebody to talk about those things.
Oh, sure, we could rely on the media to do that. How have they been doing lately? Anybody think they did a good job of assessing the candidates' relative weaknesses in 2000? Of poking holes in the Bush administration's tragically flawed arguments for the Iraq war? Of putting down the doughnuts and barbecued ribs long enough to pin John McCain down on how long he's willing to keep fighting in Iraq, what, exactly, he plans on doing to Social Security, how he would pay for his tax cuts and wars, or how much you have to make in order for him to consider you "rich"?
Anyone who thinks we can rely on the media to tell us what the candidates don't want us to know should head over to the Swampland blog, where Time reporter Michael Scherer insists that it is unfair to bring up John McCain's lengthy history of voting and speaking in favor of Social Security privatization. Scherer says we should instead simply look at the position statements on McCain's campaign Web page (statements that actually don't provide any reason to think that McCain no longer supports privatization, though Scherer seems to think they do. See my posts on Media Matters' new blog, County Fair, for further explanation.)
So, we need candidates to engage in negative campaigning -- that is, in criticizing their opponents' positions, experience, and previous performance. That's far different from dishonest campaigning. Or from tactics that cross the line from "negative" to downright sleazy. Those tactics should be called out by the news media, and frequently. But the media's reflexive focus on simply "negative" campaigning is unnecessary and often counterproductive.
It is unnecessary because the question of whether a candidate or campaign is "too negative" is a visceral question, not a logical one. Voters don't need reporters to try to measure negativity for them or to keep reminding them of it. If something is too negative for them, voters will have a visceral reaction against it; if not, they won't. Either way, they are perfectly capable of coming to that conclusion on their own. (With the important exception that if a campaign is running a viciously negative below-the-radar campaign, such as a whispering campaign like the one George W. Bush waged against John McCain in 2000, voters can benefit from the media shining a light on those tactics.)
What voters can't easily do on their own is assess whether ads are true, false, or somewhere in between. That's where the media can be useful. They have the resources -- and, ideally, some expertise -- to assess the validity of claims made in campaign ads. That's how reporters can actually be useful -- by doing what the voters can't do for themselves, and doing it well.
Unfortunately, the news media often lump true criticism together with dishonest or sleazy criticism, as though all negative campaigning is equal, and equally bad. This week, a study concluded that a larger percentage of Barack Obama's ads since the political conventions have been "negative," bringing another round of news reports that drew false equivalence between very different tactics.
The Wisconsin Advertising Project looked at a single week's worth of ads in determining that 56 percent of McCain ads and 77 percent of Obama ads were "negative." Aside from the dangers in drawing conclusions from such a small sample of campaign ads, the findings are of limited value given that the project made no effort to assess the veracity or fairness of the ads in question. In fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the study counted any ad that so much as mentioned the opponent's name as "negative."
I suppose it might be mildly interesting to know that 56 percent of John McCain's ads mention Barack Obama, or that 77 percent of Obama's ads mention McCain. But it doesn't really tell us anything useful. How did they mention each other? Did the ads criticize policy positions or personality? Were they honest? The answers to those questions are essential to any meaningful assessment of the candidates' campaign tactics. (If you do find the project's findings compelling, you should keep in mind that in July, based on a much larger sample, the project found that more of McCain's ads were negative.)
Despite the study's failure to even attempt to assess the validity of the ads it declared "negative," several news organizations hyped the findings. Worse, some suggested the finding that more of Obama's ads have been negative undermines the recent conclusions of many impartial observers that the McCain campaign ads have been more dishonest than those of the Obama campaign.
The New York Post, for example, reported that the results of the study "clash with recent media coverage accusing McCain of distorting Obama's record in ads." Nonsense. That's like saying that the fact that this is September clashes with the fact that it is Friday.
On Hardball, MSNBC's Chris Matthews also touted the study:
The McCain camp's been getting a lot of attention for some recent hard-hitting ads. In fact, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, a group that studies politics ads nationwide, deems that 56 percent of the ads aired by the McCain campaign last week were negative. That's 56 percent of McCain's ads, negative.
But here's a number that may surprise you. How many of Obama's ads in that same time period last week were negative? Seventy-seven percent -- an indication, perhaps, that Obama intends to come out swinging -- or these are the next couple months. He's going to be doing it. Nearly four out of five ads Obama aired last week were negative -- tonight's "Big Number."
But the more significant "attention" McCain has been getting has not been for negative ads -- it has been for false ads. Matthews disappears that criticism, suggesting that the criticism of McCain has been for negativity rather than dishonesty.
On Race to the White House, Matthews' colleague David Gregory said, "Obama says he wants a new kind of politics. Why is he running more negative ads than Senator McCain?" Later, Gregory played an Obama ad accusing McCain of dishonest attack ads -- but look at how Gregory characterized the Obama ad:
GREGORY: That is a new campaign ad from the Obama campaign. It is out this week, taking a swipe at John McCain for his negative ads. Take a look at this, a new study from the Wisconsin Advertising Project says that it is Obama slinging the most mud on TV; 77 percent of Obama's ads after the GOP convention were negative, compared to 56 percent of McCain's.
No. Obama's ad took a "swipe" at McCain for dishonest ads, not merely for negative ads. By changing Obama's criticism, Gregory was able to use the Wisconsin study to paint him as a hypocrite. And note the phrasing Gregory used to describe the study's findings -- the loaded phrase "it is Obama slinging the most mud on TV." Remember, the study made no effort whatsoever to assess the content of the ads; it simply counted as negative any mention of the opponent's name. On that flimsy basis, Gregory accuses Obama of "slinging the most mud" -- even as the consensus among neutral observers has been that McCain is leveling more false attacks.
Lumping all negative statements together as "slinging mud," without differentiating between true claims and false (or fair and unfair) doesn't inform viewers; it is a false equivalence that serves only to advantage truly dishonorable attacks by making them appear no worse than run-of-the-mill factual criticism. It plays into the hands of liars and smear merchants. And it penalizes honest and fair criticisms -- though such criticisms are essential to the voters' ability to make informed decisions.