Op-ed: Negative ads aren’t all bad

Continued thrust and parry between Barack Obama and John McCain has led many to label the 2008 presidential campaign the most negative campaign in the modern era. Negative ads have dominated the airwaves to the point that even Karl Rove argued that both candidates have gone too far.

But such claims are premature, and they underscore fundamental misunderstandings about negative ads. This discussion has gotten so out of whack that the real source of negativity isn’t just the ads themselves, but also the journalists and pundits who cover them.

Let’s start with a few basics. First, we cannot easily decide whether this campaign is the most negative, because we don’t even agree on the definition of “negativity.” In 2004, when conservative pundit Mary Matalin was asked about President Bush’s negative ads, she argued that they were not negative but “ready-to-engage-on-the-issues ads.” In 1988, asked about the tone of his campaign, Vice President George H.W. Bush said, “It isn’t negative campaigning to try and help the American people understand the differences.” And this cycle, the McCain campaign ducked the term altogether and pointed out that Obama was airing misleading commercials, too.

Pundits and journalists are not much better when it comes to clearheaded definitions of negativity. Turn to MSNBC or HuffingtonPost.com for claims that McCain has gone over the line and is running a sleazy campaign. Watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh to hear similar claims about Obama. When the definition of “negative” is shaped by one’s position on the ideological spectrum, we should worry.

This definitional haze is reflected in the broader public. Americans do not like negative ads; as much as 80 percent of the public indicates distaste for them. Yet people do not think it’s negative for candidates to attack on issues. It’s the personal attacks they equate with negative ads. Most commentators include issue attacks as negative, such as McCain’s strongly disputed claim that Obama supports sex education for kindergartners. To complicate matters further, most attack ads in presidential campaigns are not personal, they’re about issues. That fact rarely gets discussed by the news media. Instead, the news media focus on one or two outrageous ads and fail to look at the broader patterns.

Along these same lines, consider the favorable aspects of negative ads that are rarely mentioned: They are more specific and documented than are positive ads. And they’re more likely to be about the important issues facing the nation.

Why is there such a disconnect between perception and reality? My answer will not be popular in some quarters, but the real source of negativity in presidential campaigns is not attack ads themselves but the coverage of them by the news media. When was the last time you read or heard a story about a positive ad? Negative ads get the coverage, and the nastiest ones often draw the most attention.

Consider that in 2004 the term “Swift boat” appeared more than the term “Iraq war” in newspaper stories about the campaign between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. That’s an amazing testament to the news media’s interest in negativity over important policies.

Consultants who produce ads are well-aware of this dynamic. And because the consultants want their message to get the widest possible audience, the news media, in effect, are giving them an incentive to produce more negative ads. Positive ads still serve an important function, but why waste money on them if they are ignored by the media? With the news media’s obsession with negative ads providing even more reason to air such spots, we need to reassess the real source of negativity in American campaigns.

This negativity about negative ads, in short, is misplaced. We need to develop clearer standards of judgment about what defines negativity and to consider systematic evidence about these ads. We need, in short, to rise above our own partisan instincts. If we do so, we will realize that negativity has played an important role in this country since its founding. It may not be fun, and it may even get ugly at times, but we need to know candidates’ shortcomings as well as their strengths. And whether we like it or not, negative ads serve an important role in the democratic process. Perhaps if that message starts to spread, we will be able to see the positive side of negative ads.

John G. Geer,distinguished professor of political science, is the author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns (University of Chicago Press, 2006). This article originally appeared on the Politico website.

Media Contact: Ann Marie Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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