Just read a spine-chiller in the latest New Yorker about PACs, SuperPACs and the growth industry that is behind political attack ads. Jane Mayer’s  Attack Dog – The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney is depressing stuff. For the uninitiated, and unless you follow US politics closely, there’s no reason at all why you should be initiated, PACs are Political Action Committees. Negative campaigning is nothing new. And its hardly confined to the US, as the images below illustrate (the left is from the Tories against Labour in 1997 and the right is vice-versa in 2001). But in the US, PACs spend time promoting (or rather denigrating) political candidates – they are legally required to be independent from political campaigns, but the reality is much more blurred and murky. And they pour millions into media campaigns for nominations and elections. Mayer’s article focuses on the king of the attack ad, a dubious character called Larry McCarthy (pictured above).


It’s a long article but well worth the effort to get a better picture. But one prevalent feature of these ads was especially alarming: deliberately rip soundbites of the ad’s victim completely out of context, juxtapose it with emotively negative images and thus give them an utterly deceptive slant. And everyone is playing the game – the focus at the moment is on how McCarthy is laying into Romney’s opponents in the Republican nomination race. But as the article shows, the Democrats do similar things – and this was the context for the the standout phrase of ‘pejorative truth’

This is hardly to say that the Democrats have clean hands. One Priorities U.S.A. Action ad, “Mitt Romney’s America,” earned a “four Pinocchios” rating from the Washington Post. It claimed, dubiously, that Romney would leave “Medicare dismantled” and “Social Security privatized.” And critics say that a recent ad made by the Democratic National Committee took an offhand remark by Romney—“I like being able to fire people”—out of context. “Yes, he said it, but he was talking about firing insurance companies that don’t do a good job,” Mike Murphy, a Republican media consultant, says. He calls such deliberately misleading ads “pejoratively true.” Murphy, who used to be known as Murphy the Mudslinger, and once had vanity license plates that read “GO NEG,” says that pundits are always lamenting that the current election cycle is the meanest ever. But this time, because of the proliferation of Super PACs, they might be right. “I’ve been doing this since the early eighties,” he says. “The standards have dropped lower and lower, as to what’s allowed. There’s less accountability now, because of the outside groups.”

At least there are those who take time to award ‘Pinocchios’ (however partisan) or groups like Politifact which judges claims and counter claims from true all the way down to ‘pants on fire’. But of course the damage is done.

But this is the reality folks – there’s no escaping it. There are many out there brazenly playing dirty. But in whatever campaign, whatever that might be, the only hope is for an integrity that is different. We might not be able to change political culture – but we can at least start with ourselves. As Carson & Keller wrote (HT Findo)

Controversy customarily generates its share of purple prose. It is very easy to read everything an opponent says as negatively as possible—in malam partem, as the Latins say, “in a bad sense,” while taking what our friends say in bonam partem, “in a good sense.”

We should at least take everyone in bonam partem – especially in theological debates. I’m just not sure I’ve seen a lot of that in recent Anglican debates, for example. We can but hope, I suppose. There should be NO space whatsoever for pejorative truth. But perhaps I’m just a naïve sucker.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ross

    Good article and i will read the New Yorker as this is all very worrying. Things do tend to creep across the Atlantic after a few years, though the depressing thing about the US is how the supreme court legitimises this activity.
    Is it me or does Larry McCarthy look like Stephen Speilberg?

    1. quaesitor

      you’re right Ross – i couldn’t put my finger on it but now you mention it…

  2. Mark Philips

    I’d advise caution in taking political tips from the New Yorker. They slant aggressively to the far Left. What exactly do you find disagreeable about Super PACs? Do you think vast sums weren’t spent propping up candidates before PACs existed? PACs enable private individuals to counter massive news organisations, like the New Yorker, who present their ideas about candidates before the public.

    Also, Politifact is far from a reliable source of political commentary. It’s owned by a left leaning Florida paper and has a documented history of bias. http://bigjournalism.com/tag/politifact/

    1. quaesitor

      Fair enough if there is clear bias (e.g. Politifact). However, I’m not sure the fact that something is either right- or left-leaning puts me off reading anything. And I have to say that, as a regular New Yorker reader, I don’t naturally agree with everything i read in it, this article is actually pretty balanced. it shows how both right and left have played the game – and the whole culture of attack adds is grim and not something i would like to see imported to the UK (though it’s already begun). Intriguingly, the ‘pejoratively true’ quote was actually by a Republican aid speaking of a Democrat attack add.
      It’s a long article, but worth reading in full, not least because it is well researched and, i think, fairly balanced.

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