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Politicos on the attack

by Amy Kingsley

By the time this column sees the light of day, elections will be wrapping up and the major parties, whether they are celebrating or mourning, will start strategizing for 2008. It’s Monday now, and media outlets are still buzzing with predictions of a Democratic sweep. By Wednesday we’ll know whether all the polls, predictions and bellwethers indicated anything other than wishful liberal-media thinking.

Regardless of who controls Congress, a seismic shift has occurred during the last couple of months. It’s altered the media landscape, with an epicenter set squarely in the middle of prime time and ripples that have rolled through both dead-tree and internet news.

I’m talking about the nasty attack ads that have come mostly from the respective party committees. Attack ads are nothing new, but the 2006 midterm elections are notable both for the sheer quantity of such ads and for their success in shaping the political discourse.

Because of the lack of a major election in North Carolina, the state should have stayed off the national radar. But nasty ads, particularly those authored by the Vernon Robinson campaign, launched our state into the national spotlight. Robinson won Slate.com’s Slime award and earned faint praise from editor Jacob Weisberg, who singled out the Republican’s ad campaign for its pure partisan audacity.

Thirteenth District campaigning has made for pretty enjoyable theater. My roommates and I received an automated call from the Robinson campaign set to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme that was both deeply offensive and mildly amusing. We kept it on the answering machine for about a month.

Robinson isn’t the only politician guilty of engaging in below-the-belt slugging. Our neighbor to the west, Tennessee, was the arena for a bitter battle between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. Ford’s bid to become the first African-American senator from a Southern state since Reconstruction was obscured by the debate over advertising some perceived as racially charged. In one spot, a blonde asks Ford to “call me,” an ad that stirred up old fears of miscegenation.

The Virginia senate race hasn’t been any better. George Allen, a once-safe Republican incumbent, got caught on tape calling a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent “macaca.” He then produced excerpts from his opponent’s critically acclaimed novels as evidence of James Webb’s misogyny.

I hate finger-wagging journalism, and I’m not inclined to judge candidates or parties too harshly for their use of such underhanded tactics. Attack ads are widespread because they work.

But their presence fundamentally changes how reporters cover elections. Each new television buy spawns a series of fact-checking articles in newspapers and weeklies. Often such articles debunk the ads’ claims.

But the volume of attack ads this season has sent reporters scrambling to fact check, perhaps taking them off other important election season duties. We tell ourselves that such fact checking is an important function, but I wonder whether it is.

Most of the voters in the 13th District chose their candidate long before Robinson unveiled his notorious “Twilight Zone” ad. Those partial to his anti-immigrant and socially conservative position would be unlikely to read an article exposing the fallacy of his charges against incumbent Brad Miller. Those who support Miller have already dismissed Robinson’s campaign as attention seeking and mildly slanderous.

Still we plug away, hoping to reach voters more interested in facts than emotion. Attack ads have a life of their own, and neither websites nor newspapers seem to be a silver bullet. When we fact check an ad that has already stopped running, do we stoke the hateful political conversation? Can we ignore attack ads, or would doing that shirk our responsibility to the few voters inclined to listen to reason?

It’s important to note that all the examples in this piece come from Republican candidates. They are not alone in the mudslinging department, but they have outdone themselves this election season.

Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan website devoted to teasing the truth out of campaign advertisements, had this to say about spots produced by the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC):

“The pattern of deceptive and unfounded personal allegations contained in this year’s NRCC ads is one we judge to be truly remarkable.”

Unfortunately, what is remarkable and repugnant to an academic think tank might be the only exposure to political dialogue for many voters. As I write this I wonder whether the spectacle will translate into votes; by the time you read it we will already know. Political dialogue, alongside Congressional and statehouse dominance, is another thing hanging in the Election Day balance.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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