How many people have to die to suspend a presidential campaign for a day?
Seriously – had, say, only eight persons died in the Aurora shooting, would the candidates have shut down their campaigns? What about five?
I ask similar questions of my Basic Reporting students: Suppose Al Qaeda had quietly murdered 3,000 people one-at a-time? Surely the spectacular nature of the 9/11 attacks was intended, but what if the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had withstood the attacks and only 50 people had died?
These news value questions point to the implied calculus of misery that determines why we notice when a depraved gunman mows down a dozen moviegoers and injures dozens more. If his automatic weapon had jammed sooner, and only three had died, we probably would have spent the rest of that Friday listening to Obama and Romney smearing each other.
But that raises a more pertinent question: If negative campaigning is unseemly in the wake of multiple deaths, why is it acceptable at all? On average, according to 2004 statistics, 81 people die by gunfire every day in this country. Shouldn’t the candidates honor them, too, by shelving their attack ads?
In 1999, researchers at Arizona State University found that negative ads that help clarify issues also help drive voters to the polls, while ads with an edge of personal attack tend to have the opposite effect. When voters tell pollsters they don’t like negative campaigning, they mean the ad hominem variety. But where is the line? If you intimate that your opponent caused the recession he inherited, is that “personal,” or just a lie? If your ad shows your opponent cringingly crooning “God Bless America” while claiming that his business put people out of work, is that a policy observation or simple ridicule?
I know, I know… Negative campaigning is nothing new. Adams and Jefferson’s partisans slung slander mercilessly, but the two Founding Fathers died old friends on the same Fourth of July and the Republic rolled on. Frank Rich recently took up this theme in New York, defending the president from those who wish he’d act more, well, presidential: “Obama is embarking on one of the roughest political races in memory, not a nostalgia tour. He is facing an opponent with a proven record of successful carpet-bombing attacks, as [Newt] Gingrich and Rick Santorum can attest.”
Even the usually clear-headed Paul Krugman excused the president’s silly Romney/Bain ads, arguing, “in a political and media environment strongly biased against substance, talking about Bain and offshore accounts is the only way to bring the real policy issues into focus.” True, many campaign reporters approach their work as if they were dishing about the stars of a cable series for Entertainment Tonight.
Political campaigns in the media age are about retailing narratives, and attack ads are just the annoying, plaid-jacket salesmen. It can be argued that this, too, has always been the case, but TV revolutionized the process, starting with the political conventions 60 years ago this summer. As Douglas Brinkley notes in his Cronkite biography, the man for whom the term “anchor-man” was invented knew that television had turned political conventions into screen-ready pageants. Cronkite was the teacher for a “school” CBS set up to help politicians re-tool for the little black-and-white box. Eventually, horse-trading pols in smoke-filled rooms gave way to consultants and media advisers clouding the air in more sinister ways.
This could be a problem for a president who relied heavily on youth vote in 2008. As Thomas de Zengotita pointed out in 2005’s Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, millennials have grown up discounting the simulations of modern media. Politicians bore them precisely because they know politics is just sham performance. Poor job prospects no doubt play a part in a notable decline in political enthusiasm among young people, but when I ask students about it they tell me politics is all about lies so they tune it out — or, worse, they reflexively cling to the falsehoods that suit their cultural biases.
Would a campaign that eschewed the media-narrative model succeed? Clearly, only if both sides, including the partisans unleashed by Citizens United, agree to argue policy responsibly and — well, that ain’t gonna happen. The team that won the election for an African American junior senator in 2008 knows what it’s doing, I’m sure, and perhaps it will successfully micro-target the substance-deprived of all ages.
And maybe the president himself has had enough. In his latest ad, he talks directly to us, outlining in broad terms his differences with Romney. It’s hardly impartial or objective, and short on discrete facts, but it is measured and reasonable. Even if Romney and his corporate backers fail to reciprocate, the president could write an appealing new narrative by calmly asserting facts in rebuttal.
But it wouldn’t be just grand if the campaign were suspended indefinitely?