Negative ads: Why do we put up with them?

These campaign ads are getting harder and harder to watch. Check out this:


And then this:


And read how McCain ads have been debunked time and time again from The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionee:

Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

This is not false naivete: I am genuinely surprised that John McCain and his campaign keep throwing out false charges and making false claims without any qualms. They keep talking about Sarah Palin’s opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere without any embarrassment over the fact that she once supported it. They keep saying that Barack Obama will raise taxes, suggesting he’d raise them on everybody, when Obama’s plan, according to the Tax Policy Institute, would cut taxes for “about 80 percent of households” while “only about 10 percent would owe more.” And as Sebastian Mallaby pointed outin his recent column, Obama would cut taxes for middle-income taxpayers “more aggressively” than McCain would.

And now comes a truly vile McCain adaccusing Obama of supporting legislation to offer “‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners.” The announcer declares: “Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

Margaret Talev of McClatchy newspapers called the ad a “deliberate low blow.” Here’s what she wrote in an excellent fact check: “This is a deliberately misleading accusation. It came hours after the Obama campaign released a TV ad critical of McCain’s votes on public education. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama did vote for but was not a sponsor of legislation dealing with sex ed for grades K-12. But the legislation allowed local school boards to teach ‘age-appropriate’ sex education, not comprehensive lessons to kindergartners, and it gave schools the ability to warn young children about inappropriate touching and sexual predators.”

Is McCain against teaching little kids to beware of sexual predators?

McCain once campaigned on the idea that the war on terrorism is the “transcendent” issue of our time. Now, he’s stooping to cheap advertising that would be condemned as trivial and misleading in a state legislative race. Boy, do I miss the old John McCain and wonder what became of him. And I wonder if the media will really take on this onslaught of half-truths and outright deception.

UPDATE: I wrote this post late Tuesday night. I’m glad to see the story on the front page of today’s Post begin to take up what will be an ongoing imperative in this campaign.

I starkly remember speeches where both McCain and Obama said they wanted to run clean campaign. While Obama attempted to stay above the fray for as long as possible, to keep afloat — because negative ads and character flaws are apparently what the American people respond to the most, truth or no truth — he had to go on the offensive. I contend Obama is still farther away from the perpetual political gutter than McCain, a man whose entire campaign was to be based on honor and uprightness. So, this begs the question: how does McCain continue on without his campaign folding under the shear weight of smeardom? Why do we put up with it? Why do Americans respond to these types of ads? Why do we insist politicians “go negative?” And most puzzling: Why do we reward them for doing so — McCain seems to pick up speed the more negative he goes, while Obama had to go negative to keep up — and punish those who keep to the issues themselves?

The short answer lies somewhere here: in the busyness, laziness, naivete or ignorance of many. Each of these seems to flow from the other. Busyness is really not an excuse for not being informed about an election that will determine who sits at the highest seat in the land, in this election or any other. Laziness is a symptom that’s hard to topple. Many simply watch the ads on TV or see a clip on the news, watch squash-fests like Hannity and Combs and assume they are well-informed.

To be more informed, I suggest taking 15 or 30 minutes per day and search the county’s leading newspaper’s Web sites, to first, not only get the basis of what happened politically that day, but to read opinion columns and the unsigned editorials of the major papers. These would include: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Los Angeles Times and, at this critical time, the Anchorage Daily News. If you have time or inclination, it is best not to just stick to American publications. Read The London Times and others for different perspectives. By all means, steer clear of CNN, FOX News, MSNBC or others. Their TV stations and their Web sites are useless. C-SPAN is the lone exception.

Some time spent doing the above will make one less naive about campaign strategies and techniques. As for the final symptom, ignorance, we must make a distinction between simple ignorance and willful ignorance. The above steps will take care of simple ignorance, but of willful ignorance, I’m afraid I have no cure, and it seems the McCain camp — and Obama’s to a lesser degree — play to this demographic. The symptom here is one that constantly seeks out parallel views, and views to the contrary are tossed out with the trash. Thus, I would argue grossly inaccurate and “vile” McCain ads, as Dionne terms them, work because they affirm to McCain followers how misguided and unfit to lead Obama is and vice versa. The political perceptions of some simply never change or even falter, probably because of familial ties or religion or what have you.

Poet John Milton, writing a good three-plus centuries ago, caught me between the eyes a decade ago in college upon reading his “Areopagitica” tract against government-sponsored censorship. For me, it was an awakening. Here was a Christian poet, perhaps the greatest, saying how it was Ok, and even preferred, to read, not just books that affirm your view, but those of the “enemy.” And for this purpose: to know both good and evil, truth and mistruths, but still choose that which is true and good. I go back to this passage time and time again. It, for me, is the reason Christians, non-Christians, Jews, Muslims, Republicans or  Democrats should not acquiesce into their own deeply entrenched familial or religious worldviews, but to see and know.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. — “Areopagitica,” John Milton, 1644

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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