< The Presidential Ad Season Begins in Earnest


Friday, August 17, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  We’ve seen no shortage of political ads that pander to our emotion, for example, the heartbreaking story of Joe Soptic in this ad from the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.


JOE SOPTIC:  When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care…and a short time after that, my wife became ill, and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and, and admitted her for pneumonia, and that’s when they found the cancer. And she passed away in 22 days.


BOB GARFIELD:  But facts have a way of inconveniencing narratives. It turns out that Soptic’s wife had her own health insurance for two years after he lost his job. And she was diagnosed a full five years after Soptic’s steel mill closed.

Another example, in this ad paid for by the Romney campaign, a small businessman named Jack Gilchrist reacts to an artfully edited out-of-context excerpt from an Obama speech praising our land of opportunity. 


PRESIDENT OBAMA:  If you’ve got a business, that’s – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

JACK GILCHRIST:  My father's hands didn't build this company? My hands didn't build this company? My son's hands aren't building this company? Did somebody else take out the loan on my father's house to finance the equipment?


BOB GARFIELD:  Well maybe not, but Gilchrist excludes from his story a surprising amount of government assistance, including $800,000 in New Hampshire tax-exempt revenue bonds and a couple of Federal contracts. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, says that in this post-Citizens United world we’re going to see more ads, and more untrue ads, than ever before.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  And because you have unlimited amounts of third party money sloshing through the system, there will be higher levels of third party expenditure than we’ve ever seen before. And third party advertising – that’s non-candidate advertising - is historically more attack driven and also more deceptive.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, I’m not sure we necessarily agree. I believe that most political advertising constitutes Big Lies built on nominal facts. And you tend to believe that most political advertising is at least technically truthful. Has any of this year’s advertising made you come around to my way of thinking?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  No. But as your proportion of third party advertising increases, the likelihood that I’m going to start to adopt your conclusion increases.

Historically, if you look at all of the ads run in the general election, you will find that in most presidential ads, most of the statements are accurate. You are working in a world in which you pay a lot of attention to controversial ads magnified up through media coverage. The ads that aren’t controversial play, but they don’t get into media and, as a result, increases the likelihood that you over-generalize the extent of the problematic.

BOB GARFIELD:  I’m cherry picking, in other words.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot. Over one out of two of the third-party ads contains at least one documentable deception, so far his election year.

BOB GARFIELD:  Let’s talk about the news media’s role. You believe that on balance, actually, the media has had a palliative effect on political advertising, that with fact checking, for example, they’ve helped keep campaigns themselves relatively honest.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  I wouldn’t say “relatively honest,” I would say “more honest.” Let me give you some quick examples. Remember the opening shot in the Romney campaign with the attack on President Obama, taking a statement that he made quoting John McCain from 2008, and made it appear that he was speaking about the current campaign.

  [2008 CLIP]:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: …if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose – [ECHO] lose, lose, lose.

MITT ROMNEY:  I’m going to do something to government…


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  The journalistic enterprise went after that aggressively, to say it was out of context. And let’s take an example from the other side. The fact checkers went after the claim about Romney as outsourcer-in-chief. At issue was whether he had day-to-day managerial responsibility at Bain when the outsourcing occurred. Fact Checker said not while he had managerial control. Can you call them his firms? Yes, his name is still on the firm. And, as a result, that essential indictment of Romney is pushed to greater accuracy.

BOB GARFIELD:  You were talking about the tendency of these third party organizations being less chastened by the fact-checking process. There’s one case brewing right now, former Special Forces officers, namely in the Navy SEALs, going after the President. Have you seen this campaign video?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  Yes, it’s a web video and it’s got two trailers attached to it. It’s 22 minutes, and they’re starting to get news play, having not yet aired any of it. And it has statements in it that should be considered extremely problematic, for example, bin Laden’s picture with a question mark after “Dead” on the screen and a statement that said, “It’s my civic duty to tell the President –


NAVY SEAL OFFICER:  It is my civic duty to tell the President to stop leaking information to the enemy.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  There’s no evidence that the President leaked information to anyone. Now, when television stations get these ads, they ought to look carefully at those statements and reject those ads. This group is a 501 (c)(4). It doesn’t have to disclose its donors, so we don’t know who’s behind it. But stations have the right on any third party political ad to just say no and not air that content.

BOB GARFIELD:  But the cable channels almost certainly will air it, for free, to discuss the controversy. And you’d be naïve to think that that isn’t very often the strategy of these special interest organizations.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:  And we have a model for how journalism should treat that discussion. They should be airing and treating it the way they treated the ad you opened your segment with, that Mitt Romney’s somehow responsible for the death for the woman. The fact that that Web video never has been aired is to me an indication that strong journalistic pushback on specious, sleazy political claims and insinuations can, in fact, blunt their impact.

BOB GARFIELD:  As always, thank you so much.


BOB Garfield:  Kathleen Hall Jamison is professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson

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