Jamieson: shame and distortion on the campaign trail

By Emily Smith

Two distinguished professors graced John B. Davis Lecture Hall Monday evening to discuss advertising and campaign messages. University of Minnesota Communication Studies professor Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, who focused on the Senatorial race between Al Franken and incumbent Senator Norm Coleman, was joined by her co-author on two books, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.Jamieson is Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to her long professional title, she is author of five and co-author of seven books on presidential politics, deception and disinformation, and the media. Renowned in her field, she has made regular appearances on such programs as “NOW With Bill Moyers” and National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

For those who couldn’t attend her address on Monday, The Mac Weekly asked Jamieson a few questions about political advertising and the current presidential campaign.

The Mac Weekly: To start, can you give me an idea of what it is you’ll be talking about tonight?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Campaigns accomplish a number of things. One of the things they do, obviously, is elect somebody. But they also give the electorate a forecast of what the elected President will do in office, so they prepare the public for governing, and good campaigns do that better than poor campaigns do.

So the question for this evening is taking a look at what happens historically across campaigns in the past. How does this campaign rate as a forecast, and then how well did the advertising accomplish that goal? Advertising often speaks to things that don’t really tell you very much about how someone will behave as President, so what did we learn from the ads and the debates that help you understand the presidency, and where did the campaign fall short. So that’s what the argument’s going to be.

My problem with attack ads, in particular, is that they put down the competition without naming anything that the sponsor would do differently, and in that way, political ads are no different than ads that are intended to solicit just sales, as opposed to votes. I feel like civic engagement should be different than shopping-or is there something right about political advertising following that corporate model?

Well, first, good political advertising is contrast advertising, and there hasn’t been as much of it this year as we’ve seen in past years, and that’s unfortunate because what contrast advertising does is it makes a case against the other side on grounds that it will then argue for the sponsoring candidate’s side. So, it will say on an issue, “This candidate supports this side, but it’s wrong for this reason, it’s bad, bad, bad, but what I would do is good, good, good.” They’re on the same issue and they’re actually making a legitimate comparison. Historically, we’ve had a very high percentage of contrast advertising in political campaigns. This [year] we’ve had more of what is called pure attack and the problem with that is it doesn’t give you the ability to compare. We’ve had a reasonable amount of advocacy, but the advocacy has been separated from the attack and as a result, it’s harder for people to make the head-to-head comparisons outside the debates.

When I was reading to prepare for this interview, I thought of John Stewart’s now legendary appearance on “Crossfire,” and I was wondering if you would say that political advertising as we know it, particularly attack ads-are they hurting America?

Okay, well, first take a look at what Tucker Carlson said after John Stewart appeared on “Crossfire,” so see if you can find that, okay? Because Tucker Carlson critiqued John Stewart by dismissing him as just a Kathleen Hall Jamieson, so I took that as a personal compliment [laughs] .And I thought John Stewart was much more effective than anything I’ve ever done, so I took it as a compliment.

This year, we’ve had a very rich political environment. If you want to seek it out, you can find unprecedented amounts of information. We’ve also had a lot of trivial discussion on tactics and strategy. That doesn’t accomplish much, and that’s what Stewart was critiquing when he was talking to Tucker Carlson on “Crossfire.”

He was talking about a kind of political talk that demeans the process and makes it harder for people to learn. They’ve done controlled experiments-that is, people are looking at real political content actually aired by media outlets-and found that when the talk and the reading material, the print, focuses on tactics and strategy, you get two effects: you activate cynicism and you depress learning.

That’s a pathetic effect; one that anyone producing it ought to be ashamed of because it makes it more difficult for people to cast an informed vote. That’s where John Stewart was going with his critique, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

In this campaign, do you think one candidate has done better than the other in those regards?

I’m disappointed in both candidates this year. To the extent that we had the prospect of a very different campaign with candidates who seemed to promise that to us, we should have had a campaign that had more engagement in the ads and less deception in the ads. Both sides have engaged in deception, and that’s unfortunate. The problem is real. If you have an ad that attacks and deceives about what the candidate will do, you may get a misinformed vote and you don’t get a forecast of governance …There have been deceptions on both sides, and they’re consequential. The candidates ought to be ashamed of that. They shouldn’t be running that kind of an election.

So how is it even legal, then, if both sides are deceiving the public?

Candidate speech is protected under the First Amendment, as it should be. Who would you trust to make the decision that a candidate’s ad is deceptive? I run factcheck.org; I wouldn’t trust factcheck.org to make that decision! “A government shall make no law infringing freedom of speech” is a pretty basic First Amendment guarantee, and as a result the protection in the system when candidates distort isn’t the broadcaster. They have to carry the ads, under certain rules, but they can’t say, “No, we won’t air your ad, candidate, because it deceives,” if it’s a bona fide candidate for federal office. What that means is, when ads deceive, the other side has to be vigilant about putting corrections in. The press has to be vigilant about putting out distortions and the electorate has to be vigilant about searching out accurate information. If that doesn’t happen-it’s in particular problematic when one side is outspending the other-you’re likely to have deceptions believed. This year, you have two deceptions widely believed; that Senator Obama will raise everyone’s taxes and that Senator McCain is as likely to raise your taxes as Senator Obama.

So in that regard, do you think generally Americans are informed well enough to vote responsibly next Tuesday?

People who have high partisan dispositions…don’t really need a lot of issue information. They basically need to know what party the candidate is because the parties pretty much stay within a boundary of issue positions, and as a result it’s pretty reasonably safe. If know that I’m a Republican or a Democrat, I can cast a vote for that candidate and it will be an informed vote. That is, I won’t be surprised. The problem occurs for people who don’t have a clear sense of the party they identify with, or the people who identify with some things in one party and some things in the other party, and then deception is consequential. They may cast a misinformed vote, so it becomes most important that the people who aren’t strongly partisan and at this point who are undecided-and those tend to be the same thing, partisans tend to decide early-that they pay particular attention. Unfortunately, usually the undecideds don’t, and as a result they’re at some risk for misinformation this year.

Macalester students, for most of us, this will be the first Presidential election we’ll be able to vote in… So we might have observed the ’04, 2000 and maybe even ’96 elections [but] we’re too young to have witnessed political advertising developing into its current form, or politics generally developing into what we now see. I suspect that it’s devolved, but I don’t know. Has it improved? Is this campaign any better or worse than campaigns in recent decades?

It’s just different. You have more forms of communication and as a result, more content. You have one candidate rejecting federal financing limits and federal funding in the process and as a result, you have a lot more communication from the democrats than you ordinarily would have had. And you have the republican engaging in less paid communication; Senator McCain has less money. So you don’t have an easy comparison to other years. Too many forms of communication, too widespread, with too much of a disparity in funding. That said, some of the appeals in the election have been rehashed for decades. You expect the democrat to charge the republican with cutting social programs. You expect that to be deceptive claim. You expect the republican to charge the democrat with wanting to raise taxes where the democrat says he’s not going to, and you expect that to be a deceptive claim. So you pretty much have the patterns of deception that we’ve had in previous years. That’s not surprising. It’s a disappointing, but it’s not surprising. What’s going to make this year unique is that the information climate is enriched by e-mail contact on behalf of both campaigns, but much more effectively by the Obama campaign with its young constituency-

And text messages-

It’s text messages and it’s e-mail. When the Obama campaign ran their first ad that told people to put in one text “Hope” into their text messaging device, whatever they were calling it and they have different names, what they were essentially doing was finding a new way to communicate with constituents and one that the constituents paid for. They also have developed a very sophisticated e-mail structure…You’ll see many more messages that have political content tied to video from the Obama campaign, for example…Essentially, what the Obama campaign has figured out how to do is to use e-mail to raise money and to mobilize, and it’s done so better than has the McCain campaign.

Would you say that that affects young voters, specifically, more than-

Yeah, disproportionately. The number of people who are using those forms of communication who are young are proportionately much, much higher than are older and that was in part a function of an audience looking for a candidate. The young audience was looking for an anti-war candidate this year and on the democratic side, it only had one plausible candidate. The Obama campaign…very quickly figured out how to harness anti-war sentiment.

Is there, from your academic work or factcheck.org, any single most important thing that young voters know in this election?

Young voters know that there is a sense that the youth vote exists as a collective bloc this year…What may be happening this year is that a generation will come into the electorate strongly identified with a democratic candidate and as a result socialized to be democratic. We know that your first vote is a very influential vote. If you think that the presidency that follows if your candidate wins is a successful presidency, the likelihood that you’ll stay a democrat the rest of your life is very high…

The sense that there is a youth vote and it has an ideological disposition is probably the most important thing that’s happening because it’s an energized vote, and it’s a very idealistic vote. The question is if its candidate is elected, will this idealism be redeemed by a successful Presidency?

To close on a lighter note, do you think Tina Fey has turned voters away from McCain and Palin?

The most effective Tina Fey skit is one that borrows large blocks of interview copy directly from [Katie Couric’s] Palin interview, and then adds some comic twists to it-“May I have a lifeline?” comic twist at the end of an answer that is essentially a reprise of an answer that Governor Palin actually gave. To the extent that people perceived a truth in that caricature, that caricature was extremely damaging. To the extent that it was then reprised…played over and over again…I do think it hurt the Palin candidacy…