I'm So Sick of Whining About Negative Campaign Ads

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?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Randomfactor

    If they won’t say whether it’s true or false UP FRONT, they have no right to judge whether it’s positive or negative.

  • gregfromcos

    Could not agree more.

    Another of their critisisms that bugs me is when they say things like “These are the nastiest ads ever”, “This is the most contentious we’ve been early”.

  • Randomfactor

    “These are the nastiest ads ever”

    American history having begun about in January of this year as far as they know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

    You had me at the first sentence. Absolutely!

  • consciousness razor

    Nice. I wish you would’ve said a little more about the treatment of “positive” ads which are false. It rarely becomes an issue when politicians wrap themselves in the flag and offer gooey platitudes, while lying and otherwise distorting their own agenda, making vague promises they’ll never keep, and so on. They’ll paint themselves as heroes, patriots, job creators, an average Joe, and an expert on everything under the sun. Some of it may even be kind of true in a loose sense, if you squint really hard or are so exhausted by following politicians’ ubiquitous lies that you throw up your hands and let a few things slide. But mostly you get the same sort of coded dog-whistles in a positive form, which are effective marketing, but tell you very little about their qualifications or what they can and will accomplish.

    • consciousness razor

      I want to say that I don’t expect campaign ads to be bland and only appeal to policy wonks. But I don’t think they need to spread falsehoods or be utterly vacuous in order to be effective.

  • gshevlin

    Assessing whether an advert is true or false is difficult when the advert itself is basically devoid of any claimed factual content. I am having to suffer a stream of adverts here in Texas for the GOP senate nomination primary, and very few of the adverts have any claimed factual content whatsoever. They mostly consist of empty sloganeering based around the idea that their candidate is a “true conservative” (or some variant thereof), implying that the other candidates are somehow “untrue conservatives” or (gasp! shock horror!) “moderate”, or (cue bad-sounding music) “socialist”. Fact-checking bullcrap like this is almost a waste of time. The best summary of the ads is something like “fact-free waste of fucking bandwidth”.