After more than a decade working to dig up and document all manner of malice, I can tell you from experience what you already know: Contrary to overwhelming public misconceptions, politicians work overtime to tell the truth when they are throwing the mud around but get away with half-truths and outright lies when they’re saying something nice.
If you ask most voters, all egghead political scientists, and not a few consultants, they will tell you that politics would be better if we could just get away from negative campaigning and concentrate on the issues. A 2000 study by the Institute for Global Ethics found that an eye-popping 90 percent of Ohio voters agreed that “negative attack campaigning is unethical,” and 88 percent believed that “negative campaigning undermines democracy.” But in a country where 76 percent of the citizens thought Saddam Hussein helped Osama bin Laden carry off the 9/11 attacks, majority public opinion can fall a little short of the mark.
What voters – and most pundits and political scientists – fail to understand is that consultants worship at the twin altars of truth and accuracy when making negative attacks.
Consider the lengths that Neil Kammerman, a principal with the political media firm Murphy Putnam Shorr, goes to in order to demonstrate that a negative attack is both factually accurate and broadly truthful: He cites the documents at the bottom of the screen, shows an image of the document as well as a logo or masthead, and highlights in large type the relevant text from the document. “You want to provide the footnotes, so to speak, the backup, so a station has no question as to where the information came from,” says Kammerman.
It’s standard practice to do this in a negative commercial, not only to overcome the voters’ bias against negative ads but to protect the attack against questions the opposition will use to get the ad pulled off the air, a tactic Kammerman has used to defend his clients against false attacks.
“If we feel the attack is misleading or in any way inaccurate, we’ll go to war. We will do everything in our power to have that ad pulled off the air. We will respond,” says Kammerman. “You’re able to hold your opponent to a higher standard on negatives.”
Campaign consultants tell our clients–and ourselves–that we only get one bite at the credibility apple and that once you lose your integrity with the voters, you can’t get it back. And when it comes to saying something untoward, we believe it, but how many of us apply the same standards when we making the positive case for our candidates?
But when a campaign shades the truth in a positive ad, Hell and damnation take the day off. John Kerry’s campaign has not paid a significant penalty for its dubious claim about the “deciding vote.” Sure, Sean Hannity called him a liar, but if John Kerry said he was tall, then Sean Hannity would probably call him a liar. Uninformed notions of a liberal media bias do not explain why John Kerry has skated on this one. What’s a work here is the overwhelming bias against negative politics.
One reason that campaigns are held to a lower standard of honesty on the positive side is that positive politics relies more on general platitudes than specifics, what longtime Democratic campaign manager John Lapp calls “dare to love your mother and apple pie kinds of things.”
One consultant brings up the common example of claiming that so-and-so has “been a leader” or “fought” on some issue, which isn’t necessarily lying, but “more of a general kind of slightly enhancing someone’s accomplishments or credentials that you can’t say is inaccurate.”
“Who defines what a leader is? Anyone can be a leader on anything in Congress,” says this media consultant, who understandably wanted to keep his name out of this. “You can get away playing with language in a positive ad that you can’t in a negative ad.”
Some pundits would love to blame consultants for squishy rhetoric, but this is a uniquely American tradition that historian Daniel Boorstin identified as boosterism by settlers who wanted their new towns to thrive. Citing the example of Pittsburgh, which was touted as an industrial Mecca years before they built the first factory there, Boorstin notes that civic leaders began using the present tense to describe future goals to create reality out of intention and imagination. It’s the only way to explain how George W. Bush could call his looting of the federal treasury a jobs program.
Fuzzy language begets spongy standards of accuracy begets lazy accountability, making it harder to apply standards of accuracy to positive ads. In fact, the only recourse for making campaigns tell the truth in positive commercials is to engage in negative politics.
“Your only recourse is to find some factual evidence [to rebut their positive claims],” says Kammerman.
Jim Moore, the best-selling author of “Bush’s Brain” and “Bush’s War” as well as a former Texas political reporter, says that contrary to popular misconception, negative attacks have accuracy in positive rhetoric.
“I actually think negative ads have improved credibility for issue and image advertising for candidates,” says Moore. “Before negative ads began undergoing scrutiny, candidates were able to embellish their resumes and make spurious claims about their accomplishments and backgrounds because reporters were operating on the erroneous assumption that no one would be so silly as to pump up their CV while running for office. After journalists started doing truth tests on attack ads, they went back to start analyzing bio advertising and some issues spots. — The process got better as a result of negative advertising by campaigns.”
Voters and the eggheads they listen to abhor a campaign that engages in negative attacks and counterattacks, but they fail to understand that the more negative campaigns get, the more we take care to adhere to strict standards of accuracy and truth.