Facts Are Fungible, But Character Is Sacred

A strange excuse for Obama's ad

Factcheck.org and other outlets point out today that Barack Obama’s recent ad, “Fix the Economy,” uses outdated sound bites out of context to characterize John McCain as out of touch with the state of the nation’s fiscal health.

So, the media takes one step forward in addressing fallacies and inaccuracies in campaign ads. But then, some of the commentary which compares Obama’s attack style to McCain’s takes a strange turn.

“Only one of the ads also launches a character attack on the opponent. There may be good reasons for this. But it’s worth keeping in mind,” writes Greg Sargent at TPM about the difference between McCain and Obama.

And, on his blog at the Guardian, Michael Tomasky weighs in with this comparison: “When Republicans imagine attacks, they think in terms of character; when Democrats imagine attacks, they think in terms of policy and record. Read that again. It’s the key to presidential campaigns.”

While the distinction may be correct, it has a strange undertone, implying that character attacks are worse than inaccuracies. Well, maybe.

One assumption on the table may be that campaigns ought to be determined by policy, not character and, therefore, attacking someone personally is not fair game. But that’s just not true. Character plays a starring role in campaigns. That’s why John Edwards’s affair with Rielle Hunter doesn’t get filed under “personal affairs, see also, none of our business.” It’s a matter of public interest, the argument goes, because it speaks to the nature of his character.

If the media agrees that character is off-limits for political ads to discuss, then certain stories ought to be too. But until that day, we shouldn’t give Obama an easy out.

In general, the way that campaign ads are discussed sets up false expectations: There are “negative ads” and “positive ads”; there are “attack ads” and “response ads.” But a positive ad is really a negative ad in disguise. You can say, “Barack Obama promises to give everyone $1 million and a golden retriever,” but the not-so-subtle implication is that John McCain won’t. By punishing candidates for being explicit about what they perceive as their opponents’ shortcomings, aren’t we, in fact, just encouraging a brand of political passive-aggression?

Ads that attack character and ads that promote false information are both designed to steal votes—or, at least, dissuade voters from looking at the candidates’ policy proposals side-by-side and choosing which one they feel is right. The media’s job is to help their readers come back to those issues, not to assign degrees of wrongness to one kind of deception over another.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.