When "Negative" Political Advertising Can Be Positive  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

When "Negative" Political Advertising Can Be Positive   

Wed., January 4, 2012

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Chris Matthews was in a state of high dudgeon, a familiar place for him.

The impresario of MSNBC's "Hardball" was outraged by the way a SuperPAC loyal to the cause of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had taken down Romney rival Newt Gingrich with a brutal barrage of negative advertising in Iowa.

What particularly irked Matthews was that the SuperPAC did all the dirty work while Romney could campaign as above-the-fray Mr. Nice Guy.

As Raymond Chandler's great creation Philip Marlowe says in "The Big Sleep," "Eddie Mars wouldn't do that, would he..? He never killed anybody. He just hires it done."

No, Mitt Romney isn't the kind of guy who does his own wet work, and that completely infuriates Matthews. He fumed that this was an example of "sewer campaigning. It goes underground. It smells, and you walk above ground looking like a million bucks like you never touched your fingers with it and that's my concern.."

The SuperPACs are a spinoff of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which jettisoned limitations on political spending by corporations.

Matthews is right that there's something sleazy about the lack of transparency. If you're going to take a shot, you should take responsibility for it. But it is perfectly legal.

The discussion also underscored another important element of what's fair game in today's politics. Gingrich, quite understandably, has complained bitterly at the negative ads that helped turn him from (brief) frontrunner to also-ran.

But there are negative ads and negative ads.

Gingrich made an analogy between the ads that slapped him around and the despicable charges leveled against John Kerry in 2004 by the wildly misnamed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

But as Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, pointed out in the "Hardball" segment referenced above, the anti-Gingrich assault by the SuperPAC relied heavily on the truth.

One ad cited the steep fine against Gingrich for ethics violations, and his acceptance of big bucks from conservative bte noire Freddie Mac, and his campaigning with Nancy Pelosi (perhaps the ultimate conservative bte noire) against global warming.

Said Schmidt, "There`s not one thing that was mentioned in that ad about Speaker Gingrich that isn't true, that isn`t fair, and that`s why they have been so devastating."

It's an important point. The "negative" advertising that's truly atrocious is the kind that involves false allegations and unfounded name-calling. There's simply no place for it.

But there's really nothing wrong with running ads that spotlight differences between candidates, or differences between the current and former positions of a particular candidate, or long-forgotten but relevant baggage. Like the resurgent fact-checking efforts by news outlets, that's simply part of the vetting process.

Although there is delicious irony in that it was supporters of Romney, the flip-flopper par excellence, who were pointing out the Gingrich contradictions.

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