Thursday, November 01, 2018

What Came First? The Awful Ad or the Awful Media?

Back in July Eliot Nelson of the Huffington Post put together an amusing compilation of the worst campaign ads of 2018. Two of my "favorites" cited by Nelson include Minnesota's Richard Painter standing in front of a literal dumpster fire while sounding like a character out of a horror movie, and Colorado's Levi Tillemann writhing in pain after he pepper sprays his own face to demonstrate it as a possible alternative to arming teachers.

In Wisconsin this year, we've been subject to some pretty miserable ads on all sides. Although unlike the ads cited by Nelson, there's almost nothing very funny about them. I want to do three things in this rant:

1.  Explain why the political ads on TV are so awful.
2.  Explain the connection between awful political ads and awful news media.
3.  Suggest an alternative.

So what's so awful about Wisconsin's political ads? 

*The Tragic Frame: The late scholar of language Kenneth Burke in his 1937 book Attitudes Toward History  argued that participants in political struggles typically construct narratives about their opponents that are rooted in "tragic" or "comic" frames. In a tragic frame, the politician clearly states or strongly implies that his opponent is evil, corrupt, or somehow so broken beyond repair that he represents a clear and present danger to our way of life. In a comic frame, the opponent is merely mistaken or wrong. Comic framing leaves open the possibility for dialogue and problem solving between opponents, while the tragic allows only for victory and defeat.
Political discourse in America has been trending toward the tragic frame for a long time now, so it should not be surprising that such framing dominates political ads. The Republican ads are especially atrocious in this regard--almost every one on behalf of Scott Walker for Governor or Leah Vukmir for US Senate focuses on some fearful quality of their opponents.

A high percentage of ads these days are what I like to call "Daisy-lite." The "Daisy" ad was the infamous one run in 1964 by the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater. The theme of the ad--never stated explicitly but implied by the words and imagery--was that if you voted for Goldwater you were essentially voting for a madman who would start a nuclear war. That's about as tragic a tragic frame as you can get. Partisans on all sides claim to be appalled by such hyperbole, yet ads suggesting that there is something pathologically or even clinically wrong with the opponent are quite common.
*The Three Ds: Distort, Deceive, Distract.  The Supreme Court gutted most of the old McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, but one part of it that stuck was the "stand by your ad" provision. That's the provision that requires candidates to say "I'm so and so and I approve this message." The idea at that time was that if candidates had to actually stand by their message, they would be less likely to endorse absurd, hyper-negative attacks on their opponents.

Didn't quite work out that way, did it? Seems like the average candidate for office will "approve" just about any message. In fact, I would have a lot more respect for the ads if they would simply be honest and say something like, "I'm Joe Smith and I will say whatever the fuck you need to hear in order to get your vote."

Not to keep picking on the Republicans, but this year they win the Three Ds sweepstakes by a landslide. For GOP candidates to say that they support mandatory health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, when they have spent this ENTIRE DECADE trying to defeat the legislation that mandates that coverage, is beyond appalling. In many of the ads they try and make it sound like it is the Democrats who are somehow against such coverage, and some would rather just talk about Mr. Trump's southern border "invasion" fantasy. Probably the most laughably absurd repositioning was from Wisconsin's Mr. Walker; after running against Obamacare for 8 years, he now says he will codify the Affordable Care Act language on preexisting conditions into Wisconsin law!
*The Exploitation of Identities: Perhaps what's most upsetting about modern political advertising is the way it shamelessly exploits working people, children, the elderly, mentally ill people, veterans, and really anyone else who can be staged in such a way so as provide support for the tragic frame.

I personally find the exploitation of the elderly to be most repulsive. As someone who addresses a Learning in Retirement group 2-4 times per year, I have some familiarity with that demographic. The group I speak to range from Walker-style Republicans to Bernie-style Democrats. No matter their political leanings, they state their views in thoughtful, respectful ways and are always eager to learn new things. The Walker Republicans are fully aware of my political leanings, yet we can engage in stimulating conversations in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

In TV ads however, the elderly are almost always portrayed according to the worst possible stereotypes: angry curmudgeons, closed-minded ignoramuses, holier-than-thou pontificators nostalgic for some idyllic past that the politician targeted in the ad has killed, or sometimes they are just meek and helpless folks whose very survival is dependent on that ONE politician who "approves the message." Are there elderly people who meet some of these stereotypes? Sure--we actually have one in the White House at the moment. But nothing in the stereotype is inherent to aging; we all know young and middle-aged people who behave similarly or even worse.

What's the Connection Between Awful Ads and Awful News Media?

It's not a secret that television coverage of political campaigns has been atrocious for a long time. Not only is there not enough time spent on the campaigns, but the limited time that is spent often goes to the standard "horse race," insider-baseball "who's up and who's down" style of journalism. In a previous rant I called this lazy journalism.

The connection to the awful ads should be obvious: if the news media are not adequately telling the stories of the campaigns, it's up to the campaigns themselves to do it. That actually provides two additional benefits to the news media: (1) an economic windfall for them as the cumulative campaign spending on television ads can total millions of dollars in midterm and presidential election years; and (2) a reinforcement of the lazy journalism as often the over-the-top ads become the topic of campaign coverage. It's a truly miserable system that does little to educate voters, little to motivate voter turnout (some might even argue that the negativity of the system discourages turnout, especially among  younger voters), and little to promote the overall health of our representative democracy. Way back in 2002 the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign referred to this system as "Gouging Democracy in Wisconsin," a label that fits even better today.

What's the Alternative?

First, I am under no illusion that the incestuous relationship between television stations, public relations outfits, and hijacked campaigns that have produced this system will change overnight. With "express advocacy" groups spending a record amount of money in Wisconsin this year, most of it on ad buys, it's not likely that profit driven television stations will discover their public interest conscience anytime soon. So this corrupt system is deeply entrenched, generally benefits incumbents, and is not the kind of issue that is easy to mobilize the masses to rise up against. Even worse is the fact that the Trump years have turned the Tragic Frame into a kind of National Religion with people on all sides looking for evil lurking in every corner, a horrid state of affairs that further empowers the tragic frame enabling Churches of the Almighty Dollar (i.e. local and national television stations).

But let's dream of what a better way might look like. Take the race for Wisconsin Senate District 19. The incumbent Republican is Roger Roth, and the Democratic challenger is Lee Snodgrass. Because of the differences between the candidates, the race could have provided an excellent opportunity for the local television networks to use it as a vehicle for voter education. Television stations seriously interested in fulfilling their public interest function could have, over a period of several weeks and at no cost to the candidates or campaigns:

*Identified and explained the major issues of concern to voters in the 19th District.
*Invited Roth and Snodgrass on repeatedly to explain, in their own words, their positions on each of these issues.
*Fact checked their statements.
*Examined the record of the incumbent on the issues and relevant prior experiences of the challenger.
*Hosted at least one town hall style debate that allowed for questions exclusively from people residing in the district.
*NOT RUN ADVERTISING FROM ANY CANDIDATE, PAC, or DARK MONEY interests. (Television stations can only be compelled to run ad for candidates seeking the federal offices of President, Vice-President, House, and Senate. They have complete control over how to handle advertising for state and local offices. See a good summary of the rules here.)

WHBY radio has done a decent job of covering Roth v. Snodgrass, including a live forum hosted by Josh Dukelow for his "Fresh Take" program. If we had more of this type of coverage, across a variety of media, there would be no need for advertising.

What happened in reality is that the 19th Senate District race received very little coverage on television, and so consequently it was left to the campaigns and the special interests to get the race on the air. While the ads in that race have not been excessively vitriolic or nasty, like all ads they simply cannot do much more than provide viewers with general feelings about the candidates. But much worse than that is the fact that whoever wins that race is ultimately beholden to the interest groups paying for the ads. If the local news media took their public interest responsibility seriously, candidates could be freed from the pressure of having to accept support from groups able to afford to get them media exposure.

So what came first? The awful ad or the awful media? Given the lack of adequate campaign coverage that forces candidates to buy time to tell their story, the clear answer is the awful media.

Final Word: If you are interested in the Roth v. Snodgrass race, a race that's critical in determining which party will control the state Senate, do yourself a favor and watch this mid-October League of Women Voters Forum: