Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Mudslinging has been a part of political campaigns for as long as anyone can remember. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited amounts of money to be given to super PACs thrust mudslinging into overdrive. Super PACs have already spent nearly $60 million on the 2012 presidential race. And most of that money has gone into negative advertising. This was underscored in last month’s Florida primary. In the final weeks, 92 percent of campaign commercials were negative. Diane and her guests will talk about attack ads in the presidential race and whether they’re harming the political process.
- Jane Mayer Staff writer, "The New Yorker," author of "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals."
- Vin Weber Republican consultant, former member of Congress representing Minnesota's 2nd district (1981-93).
- Kathleen Hall Jamieson Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; among other books, she's co-author of "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election."
Negative ads in political campaigns have been credited with turning a race. Many blame the notorious Willy Horton ad in part for causing Michael Dukakis to lose his bid for president in 1988. But today, the millions of dollars flooding into campaign superPACs have changed the game – many believe for the worse.
The 1964 ad supporting President Lyndon Johnson for president that showed a young girl, a countdown, and a mushroom cloud – the so-called “daisy” ad – was a sort of turning point for negative campaign tactics, said Jamieson. What made the daisy ad different was that its impact was
achieved largely through magnification; that is, other media outlets decided to cover the ad itself, magnifying its influence. Some of the superPAC ads from the current campaign cycle are also gaining extra airtime on cable, similarly magnifying their impact, Jamieson said.
Not Just About The Money
The nature of attack ads can be just as important as the amount of money that goes into producing them. This election cycle has seen very serious character attacks, Jamieson said. The rise of superPACS has also taken a lot of the accountability out of the process of producing negative ads, Weber said.
The Media’s Role
Some media outlets like FactCheck.org aim to assess the content of political ads for truthfulness and call out those that are blatant lies, but Weber emphasized again that the media “plays both of the fence” when it comes to negative ads because attack ads make for interesting content. “Back in 2004, the infamous Swift boat ad that hurt Senator Carrie was only aired to 1 percent of the population and yet 80 percent of the people thought they saw it by the end of the campaign. Why? ‘Cause the news media gave it massive coverage,” Weber said.
What The Ads Are NOT About
Mayer pointed out that the most negative ads are not about policy decisions, but rather about cultural issues. Weber said that the campaigns themselves have talked about serious issues, even if the discussions are not reflected in the ads. “There’s no absence of information out there about where the candidates stand on a whole range of issues,” Weber said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Negative ads in political campaigns have been credited with turning a race. Many blame the notorious Willy Horton ad in part for causing Michael Dukakis to lose his bid for president in 1988. But today, the millions of dollars flooding into campaign super PACs have changed the game many believe for the worse. Joining me in the studio to talk about superPACs and attack ads, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine, and former Republican Congressman Vin Weber.
MS. DIANE REHMFrom a studio in Philadelphia, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. To join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to all of you.
MS. JANE MAYERGood morning.
MS. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESONHi.
MR. VIN WEBERGood morning.
REHMIt's good to have you here. And Jane Mayer, before we begin, I want to congratulate you on winning the George Polk Award.
MAYERThank you, Diane.
REHMThat was presented to you last Sunday for an article about Thomas Drake, a former official of the National Security Agency who had been charged with espionage in a highly-publicized leak prosecution. But now, let's turn to negative ads. Haven't they always been with us, Jane?
MAYERWell, I think since the beginning of the republic, there have been all kinds of negative campaigns. What we're looking at that's changed a little bit is the advent of television, and beyond that, the recent advent in 2010 of unlimited spending on outside ad campaigns. So you're seeing more of them maybe, and in more people's living rooms than ever before, and you're also seeing them on the Internet. So where it's become kind of from -- gone from a side show to maybe the center stage in some ways of politics.
REHMAnd let's go back to one of the first ones I remember, this is one that was created in 1964.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDOne, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine, nine...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God's children can live, are to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
REHMKathleen Hall Jamieson, was that kind of a turning point in the whole ad campaign during presidential races?
JAMIESONYou could see it as a turning point, not simply because of the content of the ad. There have been ads of that sort before, evocative ads that invited audiences to interject their own content, thereby creating -- meaning it wasn't actually explicit in the ad. But what makes the Daisy commercial important is that it achieved its impact largely -- not through repetitive airing, it didn't air that often, but rather through news coverage of -- and we're seeing that phenomenon this year as the superPAC ads are gaining airtime in cable as well as in regular news venues, and as a result, having their impact magnified and their deceptions because in the main -- in those contexts, the inaccuracies aren't being corrected.
REHMJane Mayer, what's changed since that ad of 1964?
MAYERWell, I mean, what we've seen -- first of all, that ad was Lyndon Johnson's ad. His own name was on it, his own speech was in it.
MAYERYou knew who he was, and he was going after Goldwater. It was a -- I mean, there's -- I don't think there's been a more negative ad that that...
MAYER...so you can't say that the Democrats haven't made negative ads, too. But what's changed is, we are now seeing -- in this cycle, especially, though, there's been this genre before all the way through, but it's now exploded. Ads that are paid for by donors that you don't know that are not the candidate, and some of them are paid for by completely secret money, and it is like a, you know, a kind of a knifing in the night.
MAYERYou don't -- some of the candidates who I interviewed who faced these ads are saying, I don't have any idea who paid for them.
REHMInteresting. Vin Weber, how effective do you believe they are?
WEBERI think negative ads can be very effective. I don't want to spend the whole program being the defender of negative advertising...
REHMOf course not.
WEBER...but negative advertising plays an important role in the political process. It keeps people accountable. Let's even look at the Daisy ad that you just ran, Diane, as Jane said, maybe the most negative ad in American history. I'm a Republican. If I had been old enough to vote, I'd have voted for Goldwater. But was it unfair? Goldwater had been against the Test Ban Treaty. He'd written a book called "Why Not Victory" at a time when the notion of, quote, "victory" over the Soviet Union was very controversial.
WEBERWas it really fundamentally unfair of the Democrats to raise questions about this military posture, and his attitude toward nuclear weapons? I don't think it was fundamentally unfair. I think Goldwater had a response if he wanted to, but negative ads should be a part of the process to hold people accountable for their positions.
REHMAll right. Now, let's hear this one from the campaign in 1988.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willy Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes, Dukakis on crime.
REHMNow, do you consider that one fair, Vin?
WEBERI think that it was unfair because of the racial dimensions of the ad. The notion of an ad talking about crime is not necessarily unfair, and the differences between George Bush and Michael Dukakis on how to treat the criminal issue was certainly a legitimate issue, and you're fair to dramatize it. But Willy Horton, we found out later -- I think it originally ran as a radio ad, but when it went to TV, we found out that Willie Horton was a black man, and that injected a racial dimension into the campaign which was not fair.
REHMJane Mayer, is that the only part of it unfair?
MAYERWell, I would argue that it's a genre of ad that you see a lot in negative ads where the facts are true in and of themselves, but they're lacking context in such a way that the whole ad is misleading. And you see this again and again. So if you were writing this as a story in the New Yorker, you would have had to put the context in, which is that, yes, this happened, and, yes, Dukakis opposed a program that would have ended furloughs for murderers, so that's why there was some relevance here.
MAYERBut what it didn't say was 45 states had this same program, that the Reagan administration had the same program in a federal, you know, size all over the country. This was just what was going on during that period, and to -- and it was 12 years earlier when it came up as an issue in front of Dukakis. So this wasn't exactly current. And so, all together without that, it gave a very misleading image, I think, of Dukakis on that one issue.
REHMKathleen, do you want to add to that?
JAMIESONYes. The ad opens by talking about a distinction on the death penalty, but Horton could not have been subjected to the death penalty. He was convicted as an accomplice to a felony murder. And under the court decisions that were in place at the time, you couldn't be executed for being an accomplice to a felony murder. So one of the things that I worry about with advertising is the relationship between advertising and governance, and the inference that one draws about the policy statements in an ad, and about the candidates actual capacity to act in relationship to the instance that's dramatized in the ad.
JAMIESONIn this case, whether one is for or against the death penalty doesn't have much to do with William Horton.
MAYERCan I say...
MAYER...one other thing, which is just that this was very purposely chosen by the people who made the ad, who happens to be the person that I writing about, Larry McCarthy, because it was so emotional. Crime is a really emotional issue, and it speaks to people in a way that gets them upset, and particularly showing the face of this criminal who looked like a -- as the man -- Larry McCarthy said an animal. It wasn't meant to be -- start a rational discussion. It was all about emotion.
REHMJane, you did a really comprehensive piece in the New Yorker on these negative ads, and superPACs. Which superPACs are spending the most money on negative ads right now?
MAYERWell, so far, it's the superPAC supporting Romney, which is Restore Our Future. And there are some others on the conservative side that are getting very big war chests, getting ready for the general election, I think. The Obama supporting superPAC, American Priorities, is struggling right now to get big money. I think they may get it, but -- Obama's campaign is taking a lot of the money, but the superPAC is not right now. So right now, there's an imbalance. There's something like 4 million Americans for Priority, and it's about 20 million that Romney's got.
REHMHow do you account for that, Vin?
WEBERWell, very simply. The Republicans are having a primary fight. If I were a Democrat contributor preparing to support President Obama, I would feel no urgency about giving money to that superPAC now. The Republicans, on the other hand, are duking it out, as they did in Florida, and South Carolina, and Iowa, and coming up into Michigan. So the Republican donors have a real interest in putting their money in now.
REHMVin Weber, Republican consultant, former member of Congress representing Minnesota's Second District. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMVin Weber, just before the break, you talked about the Republican primary...
REHM...and the negative ads that have been out there because they are so-called duking it out. How do you think these negative ads have thus far affected the Republican primaries?
WEBERWell, they certainly have worked on behalf of the candidate running them, but longer term, it's taking its toll on the party. There's just no question about that. If you look at the favorable, unfavorable ratings in the polls of all the Republican candidates, the unfavorable ratings are going up. Republican support among independent voters, which was very strong all through last year, has been going down.
WEBERI think that's possibly a temporary situation. Once we close ranks behind the candidate, if that ever happens, the candidate will have a chance to rebuild himself. But there's no question that this particular competition may be unlike the competition between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton four years ago, is hurting the Republican candidates
REHMKathleen, do you agree with that?
JAMIESONYes, and it's not simply the amount of money that's being spent in service of attack, but the nature of the attack. You have attacks that suggest that the trustworthiness and the character of these individuals disqualifies them from leadership. And so you have ads that suggest that former Governor Romney was implicated in illegality as part of his stewardship for the Damon Corporation. That is untrue. If you believe that that were true and you could provide the evidence, then it would be appropriate to indict him and not elect him.
JAMIESONIt's an extraordinary charge to be making or to be implying, particularly for Republicans to be implying against a Republican. It's like cannibalizing your own kind. Then, on the other side, you've had repeated ads that suggest that former Speaker Gingrich simply takes any position he's paid to take. Well, that's the ultimate allegation of corruption. And so you've got very serious character attacks being launched. It's difficult to repair those attacks.
JAMIESONAnd if those are believed -- and I believe those are being made without any legitimate evidence to sustain them, at this point. It's very difficult for a candidate to take positions on issues that are going to be believed, because why would you believe someone who's corrupt or a crook or untrustworthy and as a result effectively disqualified?
REHMVin, how have the rise of the superPACS affected these kinds of negative ads in the campaign process?
WEBERI think it's made them stronger. I think Jane made the point. It's taken a lot of accountability out of the process. I don't know that there's an alternative to that given two factors. One, what the courts have said about political giving being speech. But I'd also add what the congress has said and the Federal Elections Commission has said about putting limitations on candidates' ability to raise money that they are accountable for.
WEBERI mean, you have contribution limits that affect political parties and political campaigns that effectively restrict, very substantially, the amount of money that can be spent by a campaign. That might be okay in the view of campaign reformers, if we then had the citizen's united decision which provided an outlet that is far less accountable in terms of the expenditure of large amounts of money. We'd be much better off if we'd lift the campaign limitations on giving to actual candidates and campaigns and make candidates be accountable for the ads they're putting on the air.
REHMDo you agree with that, Jane Mayer?
MAYERWell, I mean, you know, I'm a reporter so I'm not here to be taking a position pro or con on a lot of these things., But I do see that the other side of the issue when I interview people and what they say is that you don't need more money in politics, you need less money in politics. And that they really -- in fact, the Supreme Court or somebody needs to revisit this issue of unlimited campaign spending in spite of what campaign finance reform people say, you know.
MAYERAnd so that rather than having unlimited amounts of money, you've got -- I think it's seven people who have given a million dollars for the Romney campaign at this point. It's a very small group of people, about 200 people who've raised almost $20 million there, or the large proportion of it, whatever. It's becoming a billionaire's game, in some ways. And I think that's disturbing to a lot of people seeing this.
WEBERI just want to make clear. I understand the argument that we should have less money in politics. That's not necessarily my view, but I understand that argument. What I'm saying is much more practical. Given what the Supreme Court has said, that's not possible. And so we have the worst of all possible worlds. We have the unlimited money being spent that campaign reformers don't like and no accountability by spending it through political parties or campaigns.
WEBERSo, you know, maybe someday the Supreme Court will overturn Citizens United or something like that, but that's not the case today. And this really ought to be viewed as the worst possible way from a standpoint of people on the campaign reform side and the anti-campaign reform side.
REHMJane Mayer, you wrote a great deal about a man named Larry McCarthy. Tell us about him and how he has come to play such an important role.
MAYERWell, he was the creator of the Willie Horton ad that you played earlier on the show. And he has really made a career of doing ads for outside campaigns. That is not for the candidate, but for these outside groups that kind of play in the shadows more. And what's happened is that as a result of Citizens United in 2010, his business has exploded. He's become, as political called him, the go-to man for attack ads. And he's got a small firm. I think, in 2010, they got something like $18 million worth of ads going through it from sort of groups that don't disclose who their donors are.
MAYERAnd this year, he's got a really unusual and prominent role, which is, he is one of three directors of Restore our Future, the outside PAC that's pushing for Romney. They're going to have a tremendous budget and he's making the ads that people are all talking about that are -- the question of whether they're more negative than ever. It goes right through his hands. He is the creative force making these ads.
REHMGive me an example.
MAYERWell, he's made a number of ads about -- some of them are fun to watch about Newt Gingrich where he suggests that he has too much baggage to be elected. And that it plays on the issue of whether or not Romney's the only one who can be elected. The issue -- the argument was, he's the only electable one. Don't look at the other guy because he's just completely filled with dirty bags filled with skeletons in the closet. So things like that are some of his ads.
JAMIESONBut there's a more serious issue with that ad. The ad suggests that Speaker Gingrich voted for legislation that would've authorized funding of abortion in China. The legislation explicitly excluded that possibility. It suggests he personally took 1.6 million -- his firm did, but he didn't, and suggested that he was fined as part of the congressional ethics investigation. He was and he was asked to repay expenses of the committee.
JAMIESONSo you've got advertising that not only is creating an imbalance in the amount of speech that's available on each side, but is doing it in service of inaccuracies.
REHMSo who's checking these ads, Jane?
MAYERWell, I mean, the press is trying, but -- and there are a couple of organizations like PolitiFact that are nonpartisan...
MAYER...and FactCheck.org -- to try to weigh in and weigh the facts on these things. But who was it? It was like Mark Twain who said, you know, a lie goes around the world before the truth's had a chance to put its shoes on.
REHMAll right. Let's hear this one regarding Rick Santorum.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANRick Santorum's been in Washington so long he's called the ultimate Washington Insider. Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful earmarks including the bridge to nowhere and a teapot museum. Santorum says...
RICK SANTORUMIn fact, I'm very proud of all the earmarks I've put in bills. I've defended my earmarks in the sense that I'm proud of the money that I did set aside.
WOMANRick Santorum, Washington Insider, big spender. Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.
REHMJane Mayer, that was created by the Pro-Romney superPAC.
MAYERYeah, that's right, Restore our Future, which is based in Washington. I mean, and so it's making this argument about, you know, the evil Washington insiders and the arguments being made by the evil Washington insiders, you know. I mean, it's almost -- it's kind of a parody. I mean, they're sitting there thinking up, well, how can we take this guy down? Well, we'll paint him as this, when in fact they are the same thing. It's a very inside game being played.
REHMKathleen, tell us what Annenberg is trying to do to call out these false ads?
JAMIESONWell first, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which I direct, runs FactCheck.org as well as a sister site called FlackCheck.org. FactCheck is a traditional journalism site. FlackCheck is using visuals and parody in order to try to mark off deception. But FlackCheck.org has a second project. Local stations are not required to air third party ads. And a superPAC ad is a third party ad, as is an ad by a Democratic or a Republican Party or an ad by a special interest group.
JAMIESONAnd as a result, we are encouraging viewers to email through our site local broadcast stations in their media market to remind them that they don't have to accept these ads. And if they're going to, would they please ensure that they're accurate because stations have the right to insist on the accuracy of the superPAC and other third party ads that they air. They can't touch those ads for bona fide candidates for federal office. So the ad sponsored by the presidential candidates could be blatantly inaccurate and stations could know it and they have to leave them alone.
JAMIESONBut those third party ads don't have that protection and the stations have a right, we hope, that they're going to exercise. And we want people who believe that it would be good to stop the deception before it ever airs in these third party ads, to please email their stations from our website or just go to your phone directory or your email directory and ask them to please protect your community from this form of air pollution. It's not appropriate to be electing people based on deception and there's a lot of it this year, the third parties are trafficking out.
WEBERI just want to say that the news media plays kind of both sides of the fence on this. They do play a role in accountability, but they also amplify these ads. They give them a lot of coverage. You know, back in 2004, the infamous Swift boat ad that hurt Senator Carrie was only aired to 1 percent of the population and yet 80 percent of the people thought they saw it by the end of the campaign. Why? 'Cause the news media gave it massive coverage.
WEBERThe media -- yes, I'm glad for the FactChecking. I'm glad for holding them accountable, but they also amplify every negative ad 'cause they're good stories.
JAMIESONBut if they took their job as journalists seriously, when those ads were being put up, they would've examined the factual accuracy. One of the problems with 24-hour-a-day news cycles is that people who are on air in real time, they're putting these things on the air before anyone's had a chance to vet them. And as a result, they're magnifying their impact and they're magnifying the deceptions in them. Good journalism doesn't do that. We need to find a way to encourage the journalists who are on air 24 hours a day to do the best job they can of policing the inaccuracies.
MAYERYou know, I mean, I agree. I think our job is to try to figure out what the facts are behind these ads on all sides. And it's hard, though. That's what -- I remember when the Swift boat ad came out, it took the New York Times something like ten days to get to the bottom of it. You know, when you're a reporter sitting there and you have to be responsible, you call everybody, you go through records, it takes a while. And meanwhile, this stuff is on the air reaching people. And you're playing catch up in this game a lot of the time.
REHMBut how can you possibly evaluate them before they go on the air?
MAYERWell, you can't before they go on the air. But the other thing is, I mean, while we're trying to hold people accountable -- I mean, take a look at -- take Larry McCarthy as an example. I'm not sure that there's any penalty for playing hardball in the hardest way and most controversial way. This man has made a very lucrative career of it and he's now making the ads supporting, you know, what at least much -- many people think is the front runner in the Republican race, I mean, up and down Romney is, but, you know, many think he'll be there for the long haul.
REHMVin Weber, do you want to add to that?
WEBERNo. I -- look, Larry McCarthy's a good ad guy. I mean, he does great work and this is not -- this is a tough business we're in running for president. I don't defend ads that are incorrect and inaccurate, and Kathleen has mentioned a couple of them. But I don't think we're going to get to a point where you don't see top ads run in this tough business.
REHMVin Weber and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers waiting. I'm going to open the phones now. First to Richmond, Ind. Good morning, Jack, you're on the air.
JACKThank you. Well, this point may be moot given the discussion you just had, but I remember going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and they had a display on propaganda, the anti-Semitic propaganda in the -- by the Nazi's leaders leading up to World War II. And they had a very good definition I thought. Propaganda's taking truth, half truths and lies and putting them together in order to promote a particular point of view.
JACKAnd it's -- to me, it seems that the media spends a lot of time covering political races like a football game or a sporting contest. Who's winning? Who's got this angle? Who's accomplishing this or that to beat the other guy, as opposed to analyzing some of these things and pointing out where propaganda exists and calling it by that name.
MAYERWell, I do think it's -- one thing that's interesting is what these ads are not about, and we don't write enough about that. I mean, the ads tend to be about very emotional, you know, kind of culture war wedge issues. And what they aren't about are complicated policy debates that maybe -- you don't see ads about people's education policies. You don't see ads about income inequality that are -- where people are trying to decide how to attack this, or about trade really. Some of the big issues in front of what a president is likely to have to deal with to help the country. They don't make the -- ads are not about these things.
REHMBut neither has the campaign really flushed out some of the issues that these folks really stand for. I think it's been confusing, Vin Weber.
WEBERWell, I think the campaigns have talked a lot about the issues. They may not have put them in 30-second ads, but there's a lot of substance that's been discussed in the campaigns. They've had what, 19 debates in which most issues have been pretty well aired. There's no absence of information out there about where the candidates stand on a whole range of issues.
REHMGive me your example of where the candidates, other than Ron Paul, stand on foreign policy.
WEBERWell, on foreign policy?
WEBERWell, they've all taken a much tougher stand on Iranian support, tougher financial sanctions against Iran. They've made it clear that they're not going to accept Iran as a nuclear power. I think that there's been a good deal of discussion about foreign policy. There's talk about conditioning of foreign aid in controversial situations such as Egypt. I think that there' been a lot of discussion about it.
WEBERBut there's been more discussion about the economic policies because those are the big issues in this campaign so far. Governor -- on foreign policy Governor Romney's talked about China probably more than any other candidate we've had. He talks about branding them as a currency manipulator, which doesn't necessarily suit all of his business supporters well, but it's a pretty strong stand and he's laid out a stand on China pretty well.
REHMThere's been an awful lot of bashing of President Obama's health care plan, Jane.
MAYERWell, and I think you're going to see more of that in the ads. I mean, basically what we're looking at now are Republicans destroying Republicans. And it's just the warm-up phase, as far as I can tell. You've got -- you're going to see -- this is -- most people that I've interviewed seem to think this is going to be the most negative general election we've seen. I mean, and maybe they say that every four years, but Mike Murphy, who I interviewed who's an ad maker on the Republic side, said, yes, they say it every four years, but this year, it's true.
MAYERIt -- there's just so much money that's going to go at Obama for, you know, what they like to call Obama Care and everything else. It's going to be very ugly, I think.
REHMDo you agree, Kathleen?
JAMIESONI think we're going to see a higher level of attack and a higher amount of attack simply because you've got substantially more money in the process this year. And so it's almost tautologically true. And if the patterns so far in the primaries holds, I think we can predict that that is in fact going to be the case. But let me return to a question that you asked earlier. How can...
REHMHold on, Kathleen. Kathleen, we've got to take a short break here. Hold that thought until we come back. And we will be back very soon.
REHMAnd here in the studio as we talk about negative advertising, Jane Mayer is staff writer for "The New Yorker." She has just won the 2011 Polk Award for a piece she did for the magazine. Vin Weber is a Republican consultant, former member of congress representing Minnesota's 2nd District, and from the University of Pennsylvania, Kathleen Hall Jamieson who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center. She's the coauthor of "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election." We'll go right back to the phones, 800-433-8850. To Andrew here in Washington, D.C. Good morning.
ANDREWGood morning, Diane. My point I have about superPACS is one that no one's really addressed and it's kind of my biggest fear. When the primaries are over all of these superPACS are independent organizations not tied to any campaign. So theoretically as soon as a frontrunner has been decided from the GOP, all of the money that was technically theoretically raised for candidates that are not the frontrunner can very easily be redistributed to the top. And I don't think we've seen like a flow of funds like that in a campaign before now.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Vin?
WEBERWell, I understand the concern although the way the money's being spent there isn't going to be anything left when we've finally settled on a candidate. In other words, these superPACS are spending all the money they get as it comes in. So I think the fear is going to be somewhat misplaced. I do believe you're going to have the nominee with a superPAC that is well funded and -- you know, to the extent that there's non-accountability. Yeah, that's going to be an issue but it's not because all of the existing PACs are going to come together. They're going to end the campaign without much money left.
WEBERNewt Gingrich's PAC just ran out of money until they get another infusion of $10 million from Sheldon Adelson. But I can just about guarantee you they'll run through all that money before this nomination fight is over.
MAYERBut there are some PACs out there that are not just candidate specific like American Crossroads GPS...
WEBERThat's a good point.
MAYER...which is just plain money flowing into an organization that was originally thought up by Karl Rove, the Republican operative, very smart about American politics. And it is accumulating piles of money. There's also Americans for Prosperity, another group that was originally set up by the Coke Brothers who were big industrialists. And those two groups are talking about spending upwards of $100 million in this election.
REHMAnd let's hear just one more ad. This one regarding Representative Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5For centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero where Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. It's like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor. The Muslim cleric building the mosque believes America was partly responsible for 911 and is raising millions overseas from secret donors. But incredibly Bruce Braley supports building a mosque at Ground Zero. Tell Braley what you think.
REHMKathleen, do you want to comment?
JAMIESONThe ads have the ability to stoke fear and to create powerful frames that minimize the likelihood that we ask what the alternative side of the issue is and why a rational person might support that alternative position. And one of the dangers of an imbalance in the amount of money in the process is that the alternative side might not be able to frame the issue from that person's perspective. And as a result, voters might vote in a way that they might not, were they fully informed. It makes the function of news much more important, and in particular of debates.
JAMIESONWe know from our debate studies that voters of all educational levels and of all interest levels do learn from debates.
WEBERIt's a really unfortunate ad. I have a personal interest in it because I worked actually with Imam Feisal, the person they're referring to on a project that Secretary Albright and I chaired on Air of Democracy several years ago. And he's a fine man and a moderating force in the Muslim community. And to portray him as the ad portrays him is bad at every level. It hurts relations with the Muslim community in this country at a time when we really need to be working on improving those relations.
MAYERI mean -- all right. This was an ad made again by Larry McCarthy and it was made for a group called the American Future Fund, which is a very secretive group that doesn't tell you where the money's coming from. And it was described by Jeff Garen, a political operative in Washington who's a Democrat...
MAYER...pollster as maybe the most egregious ad of 2010. Almost everything about it was factually wrong. This was not a mosque that was being proposed. It was a kind of a center -- a social center. It was not at Ground Zero. It was just in the neighborhood but not literally at Ground Zero. Bruce Braley, who was a congressman running for office in Iowa did not even support this project. He didn't -- he hadn't spoken on this project until he was at a state fair when an ambush videographer came up and stuck a camera in his face and said, what do you think of the Ground Zero mosque? And having not thought about it he said, well, you know, I value religious diversity in this country. That is the basis of this ad. And it was...
REHMThat was all he said?
MAYERThat was all there was to it and they turned it into this incredibly misleading fear mongering ad that also equates all Muslims with Al-Qaida. It's in so many ways awful and it -- but the thing was it actually had an impact. This and other ads made by the American Future Fund took Braley from a big lead almost to losing his reelection. He was considered a very safe seed. He said it felt like the house in the Wizard of Oz falling on him. You know, he survived but barely.
MAYERAnd so, you know, it's just -- to me, I mean, what he said was, and I thought it was interesting, that what he really objected to is people like the ad makers in this case not having the courage to stand up, run for office and make the argument themselves. They're hiding anonymously behind anonymous money making sort of these attacks without owning up to them.
REHMKathleen, should these ad makers be made public?
JAMIESONI think that one of the functions of journalism is to try to -- it should be to try to tie the ad maker and the donor to the content of the ad. And one of the functions of broadcast stations -- that was a third party ad -- should be to insist that the accuracy be demonstrated, every claim be documented, burden of proof be on the advertiser before they accept the ad to air. This is an instance in which had stations been doing their job the electorate never would've exposed to the message.
REHMBut what can a station do? Aren't they, to some degree, required to air these ads, Vin Weber?
JAMIESONNo, they're not. There's no requirement the stations air anything but ads for federal -- for candidates for federal office. Stations have the right but not the obligation, the right to reject all of those third party ads. Those are non-candidate ads. And they also have the right if they're going to air them, to insist on accuracy. And the way that you determine whether it's accurate is put the burden of proof on the advertiser to establish that it's accurate. And if they can't establish it, don't air it.
WEBERI just want to put all this in perspective. We were focusing on a few ads that have egregious problems connected to them. And I think -- I agree with that on the ads we've been talking about. But there's a lot of data on negative campaigning and most negative ads are accurate ads. And we shouldn't say that all negative campaigning is inaccurate. Furthermore let's not whitewash all of the positive ads that are run too. Positive ads probably contain less accurate information about the candidates than the negative ads.
REHMGive me an example.
WEBERWell, I don't have a -- I haven't seen many this cycle, but most positive ads just build somebody up without any great regard to specific stands on issues and talk about their wonderful background and what wonderful they are. There's not any real data in them or any information about issues. Negative ads by and large, with the exception of some of the ones we've been talking about today, are pretty carefully checked out because most candidates most of the time fear a backlash if they're found with an inaccuracy.
MAYERI do -- I agree with Vin Weber that a lot of negative ads have a lot of information in them. And everybody knows that nobody remembers the positive ads. What voters remember are the negative ones. And some of them have information that people need to know. I think the problem is that an awful lot of them are also misleading. And I think this business of the hiding the money behind them is really a concern.
MAYERAnd Kathleen was saying, you know, reporters need to check this out and find out where the money is. The New York Times did an excellent piece about the group The American Future Fund that was behind this particular ad on Bruce Braley. They could still not get the money. All there is is a post office box where this place is registered. They think they know who one of the funders is. He's a big ethanol maker, but they're not sure.
JAMIESONOne of the things that I think we ought to worry about in all of this is saying -- or implying that attack is somehow illegitimate. There's nothing wrong with attack if it's accurate, fair and relevant to governance and if it's drawing a legitimate distinction between the candidates. The reason I don't like the word negative, negative conflates attack with illegitimate attack. I'd like to reserve the word negative for things that are illegitimate or dirty. And Vin is right. You're as likely and in some cases more likely to have deception in ads that make a case for a candidate as you are an attack ad.
REHMAll right. To Lapeer, Mich. Good morning, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEThank you. I'd like to just briefly say that I hate the negativity. I despise it. And -- but another thing that I hate is the word game. People treat attaining the presidency like it's a game. It's not really a game. It affects people's lives. And I think that a lot of the negativity, you could probably take care of a good share of it by limiting all candidates to the same amount of money and then making it, you know, punitive to -- for an organization to campaign for a candidate.
REHMBut that's what the Supreme Court was all about.
WEBERYou can't do it. I mean, we have -- that's what Citizens United was all about. It's what Buckley Vallejo got at many years ago and we're not going to get to that point. We better figure out a system -- I agree with the arguments we've made here about wanting transparency and accountability. But if we're going to try to get to that we better figure out how we're going to do it consistent with the constitutional structure that has been created.
MAYERBut there's one thing in -- I mean, people tend to look at those two decisions. You talk about the Supreme Court decisions, Buckley Vallejo and the Citizen's United one is saying any amount of money is find to spend. There was a balancing act in both those decisions still, which is the court said so long as it doesn't corrupt American democracy. They said that you always have to balance free speech against protecting our democracy. And it may be that the balance is off right now. And so I'm not sure that it's necessarily a closed book on this subject.
JAMIESONI think that the important thing to remember as one thinks about the role of money and politics is that disclosure hasn't been foreclosed by Citizens United. And the question is, is there a way to legislate disclosure in a way that still upholds basic constitutional principles?
REHMKathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania. She directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Oklahoma City. Good morning, Debra, you're on the air.
DEBRAYes, my question is we have all kinds of limitations for individuals, how much money you can give to a campaign. But it seems that corporations and PACS are unlimited. Why is that? Is it just that we're trying to catch up with the laws or is that something that's reasonable before we can get an Amendment passed to overcome the Citizens United case?
WEBERWell, I just want to clarify. First of all, that's not quite accurate, although I think I understand the intent of the comment. But corporations can't give any money to a campaign and PACs are limited in the amount that they can give to a campaign. But what we are talking about here is money spent outside of the campaigns, which is exactly the point that I've been trying to make.
WEBERIt would be better if you could put that money through a campaign where it is fully disclosed subject to at least some limitations and where the candidate has to take responsibility for it.
MAYERI mean, what the court -- the reason it's going to outside groups instead is the court said that if that money went directly to candidates it would be bribery and it's corrupt. And so the idea was to set up an outside system so that it's not corrupt. And I think, you know, it's in the eye of the beholder whether this is working.
WEBERLet me just make a point. We have laboratories of this theory. In Virginia you can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. Do we have a corrupt political system in Virginia? I don't think so.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Mark who's in Phoenix. He said, "In Citizens United and the amazing vitriol of late, I will no longer vote. I voted in every election since I turned legal age. I'm now 64. I've had it. I've never donated a dime to any candidate because I do not believe in private funding. Further, we do not separate church and state. I'm tired of people telling me about their religious beliefs." Are we hurting the Democratic process, Kathleen?
JAMIESONThe danger is that you have people who hear -- an environment in which everything is very confused and there are charges and countercharges. And there's a lot of deceptive information. And in the process they lose track of the fact that there are important distinctions between candidates within the Republican Party and important distinctions between the Republican who eventually will be nominated whichever it is and the incumbent president.
JAMIESONAs a result if someone decides not to vote because they draw the assumption that voting is futile, they give up their opportunity to vote on distinctions that might matter to them and that would be unfortunate.
MAYERI mean, there's an interesting piece in Ad Age actually this morning that talks about how in product ads they don't just run down the other side for a specific reason. They think it damages the whole category. So if you're selling mayonnaise you don't tell the -- you don't talk about how greasy the other mayonnaise is because it makes all people kind of think, I don't want any mayonnaise.
MAYERI think we're seeing a little bit of that in politics where basically by running down the other side, you're running down the whole category. And people are saying, I've had it with politics.
REHMJane Mayer. She's staff writer for The New Yorker. Vin Weber, Republican consultant, former member of congress and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. I want to thank you all so much. Before we go, I do want to sadly report the passing of a dear friend, Tim Emmons, an esteem public radio figure and dear friend. He was the manager for more than 20 years of that Northern Illinois University station in DeKalb, Ill. WNIU and WNIJ. Our condolences to his family. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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