Battling Dirty Politics

With its audience-tested messages, slick television production and endless repetition, political advertising threatens to drown political journalism.

Remember the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary? Bill Simon stunned pollsters by coming from obscurity -- 33 percentage points behind Richard Riordan -- to 6 points above in a single month. The Field Poll called it "one of the most remarkable turnarounds in California election history."

On Mar. 2 of this year, lightning struck again. Four weeks earlier, only a third of Californians favored Proposition 57, Gov. Schwarzenegger's $15 billion budget bailout loan. Pollsters were predicting its defeat. On Election Day, 63 percent voted for it.

Common to both turnabouts was massive spending on television ads. In Mr. Riordan’s case, then-Gov. Davis spent $7 million trashing the former L.A. mayor. Last month, Proposition 57 ads got more reps than Gov. Schwarzenegger's abs. Can you think of a newspaper or newscast swinging so many voters so quickly? Or anything journalists do, short of a smoking-gun investigation?

Although the ads alert everyone but hermits to an impending election and connect politics to everyday concerns, they can undermine the election in at least five ways:

1. At their best, they reduce policy and a candidate's past performance to slogans.

2. They are often misleading or downright deceptive.

3. They are expensive -- forcing candidates to steal time from public service to dial for dollars and enter potential conflicts of interest with donors seeking favors.

4. They favor the side with the deepest pockets.

5. When they go negative, they alienate voters, depressing voter turnout.

Print, Web and especially broadcast journalists must find a way to regain center stage. As some national newspapers have already begun to do, they must put deceptive ads on trial and expose their falsehoods early and often.

Stanford University political scientist Shanto Iyengar warns that in the effort to debunk ads, journalists should avoid replaying them. That would give them additional exposure that some audiences might remember on Election Day more clearly than the accompanying critique.

Rather, key claims should be compared to the record. If the stone-thrower's own house is glass, that should be pointed out. Analysis of campaign ads need not be expensive. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication provides analysis of national ads for free.

Social scientists disagree on political advertising's power of persuasion. Obviously, TV spots don't guarantee a candidate's success. Howard Dean outspent his rivals on television in New Hampshire and Iowa and still lost. But ads appear to be persuasive particularly when they are negative, unequally opposed, and when voters haven't yet made up their minds.

Tobey Pipkin, a 61-year old Republican from the Central Valley, was planning to vote for Mr. Riordan back in 2002. But after Gov. Davis' television barrage, Mr. Pipkin told the Sacramento Bee, "A month ago, I really liked Riordan. I was believing everything I was hearing and reading. But now, I've been swayed."

Such stories sway politicians. President George Bush is betting most of the record-breaking $170 million campaign war chest he's raising on political advertising. And Democratic nominee John Kerry is desperately scrambling to catch up.

The televised political ad has come a long way from a chorus of cheery voices singing "I like Ike." Today cognitive scientists pre-test messages and images with focus groups comprising types of voters who might swing an election. Only those that touch a chord move into production.

Embedded in both entertainment and news programs, these ads reach most of the population. With their image-based associational logic, their demonstrated emotional punch and their frequent repetition, they can overwhelm conventional campaign news reporting.

The effect is even more pronounced when that reporting focuses on the "horserace," leaving voters with little information on which to base their decisions.

Many European democracies like Britain and France forbid political advertising on television. In its place candidates are given free blocks of air time to make their case, face-to-camera with the public. That solution reduces the impact of slick image-makers, makes campaigns far cheaper, equalizes the wealth advantage one side may exercise and gives candidates enough time to engage complexity rather than sling slogans. It also requires candidates not only to endorse any attack, as a new U.S. law requires when candidates pay for ads, but to deliver it themselves -- a strategy that has backfired on aggressive candidates in Britain.

But in the U.S., the First Amendment forbids the state from imposing any ban on political ads. Of course, networks and stations are free to reject advertisements. CBS, for example, rejected the political group MoveOn's Super Bowl ad portraying the president's budget policies as a burden on the next generation.

But don't hold your breath expecting television to turn away from an expected $1.3 billion in political advertising between now and November. Not only do networks and stations collect for the ads directly. The competition for scarce spots drives up rates for commercial advertisers as well. It's a bonanza.

Given that this gold rush depends utterly on use of the public's airwaves -- which are allocated at nominal cost in return for public service -- television news departments have a particular obligation to mitigate the harm done by toxic campaign ads. The fact that television reaches many citizens who don't read newspapers heightens this duty.

John McManus is the project director of "Grade the News" at Stanford University.

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