Spreading Unfair Political Ads
Earned media favors sensationalism
Hana Callaghan is the director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
On the eve of Georgia’s recent congressional runoff election an independent expenditure committee called the Principled PAC aired a political ad in opposition to Jon Ossoff’s bid for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The ad falsely tied Ossoff to the horrendous attack on Congressional Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game which left Majority Whip Steve Scalise in serious condition. The ad was cheaply produced, only ran for two days, and only aired on Fox News. Even though both Ossoff and his opponent Karen Handel condemned the ad, by Monday morning it was being replayed on every major news market and digital outlet. Although most commentators decried the outrageous and false content, the creators of the ad were nonetheless given free airtime in the replaying. In the campaign world this is called earned media—coverage for which the campaign does not have to pay.
This is reminiscent of the infamous 1964 “Daisy Ad” whereby an image of a little girl picking daisies turns into a count down for a nuclear attack. Over the image of a mushroom cloud reflected in the little girl’s eyes the audience hears the voice of Lyndon Johnson saying "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." The false implication was that the election of Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater would result in global destruction. The outrage was swift and Johnson’s campaign pulled the ad after airing it just once. Why then is this ad so well known? Because, just as in the Ossoff case, the media in reporting on the race picked up the ad and broadcast it repeatedly.
At what point do the news media become less impartial reporters of a political race and more unwitting participants? It appears the more outrageous an ad or action is, the more likely it will be picked up for free. Should the press allow itself to be manipulated in this fashion? This is a difficult question. Surely the people have a right to know if a politician is being deceptive. Can a reporter report on a deceptive ad without replaying the ad itself? Or perhaps the better course would be for the media to leave the fact checking of ads to organizations designed to do just that such as factcheck.org or politifact.com. Maybe we would be better served if the media focused more on where the candidates stand on the issues and less on the political mudslinging. If the media didn’t give dirty political ads a free public platform, perhaps there would be fewer of them.