Journalists should stop categorizing ads by whether they are negative or positive and start categorizing them by whether they are true or false.
“Does this ad present accurate, adequately thorough, properly contextualized information?” “Are the inferences this ad draws from the factual information it presents logically valid?” “Is this ad presenting a sound argument that the policies, record, or character of the candidate being criticized make him or her a poor choice for office?”
If the answers to those questions are “yes”, then it is not the media’s job to police any further the tone of a campaign. Voters need as much honest information about candidates’ weaknesses and poor choices as about their strengths and their good choices as they can get. And what the media should be focused on is meticulously correcting the record when deceptive ads come out and shaming the perpetrators of deceptive ads.
Focusing on ad’s negativity rather than its falseness does several harms. For one thing, it allows for false equivalences between advertisements which contain relevant, defensible substance and ones which are simply smears. This undermines the credibility of justifiable ads. Secondly, focusing on the negativity of an ad is often a substitute for debunking the content of the ad, which allows the claims made in the ad to stand. This all strikes me as part and parcel of the larger tendency of journalists to see themselves not as impartial, scrupulous arbiters of facts about reality but rather as reporters on politicians’ views of facts. We are told that Democrats claim these realities are true and Republicans claim some other realities are true, and all too often not told which are actually true out of a misunderstanding about what objectivity requires. Objectivity is not a matter of allowing both sides of a political debate their own facts and just reporting on what the two views of reality say. Objectivity is about fact-checking both views of reality.
Deceptive smear ads are a disgrace. They deliberately and systematically misinform the public. They are endemic. Many in media recognize they are a problem but instead of properly labeling the nature of the offense and risk being seen as “partisan” for having upheld one side’s claims about facts over another’s, they wring their hands over the negativity. They act as though our greatest pressing need is more upbeat lies from politicians, rather than less lies, and as though logical, factual criticism was the very same thing as disinformation and fear-mongering (or, at least, just as unhealthy to our democracy as the latter, even if different).
Sound like a familiar problem, my fellow New Atheists?