Unmet Promises in Times Front Page Story

Putting readers to work on negative ads

Last Friday we sang the praises of the Times magazine’s story on the Connecticut Senate race; today, alas, a weekend cover story from the Times has us scratching our heads.

Jeff Zeleny’s “Democrats Unleash Ads Focusing on Rivals’ Pasts,” doesn’t have a lot of business being on the front page of the weekend Times to begin with—aside from my increasing frustration over the media’s single-minded obsession with strategy over issues, it’s not really all that newsworthy that politicians are running negative ads. This is election cycle evergreen, distinguished and dubiously made newsworthy by the assertion, made without corroboration by strategists interested in showing they are doing something to stem the party’s losses, that this cycle, the Dems are going negative slightly earlier than usual. Also, lo and behold, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has had a team of researchers digging into candidates’ histories to dredge up the material for these ads (the most interesting nugget in the piece are the details of the effort, which come about sixteen grafs in).

But even if we were to argue that it was a pretty slow news weekend, and that the story was jig-sawed into the front page layout among other worthier reports—the trials of Bishop Eddie Long being a better example than another “Karl Rove is back” piece—Zeleny’s story is full of promises on which it does not deliver.

After a protracted introductory section in which Zeleny tells us that there are negative ads this cycle, that they’re coming earlier, and that the Dems are focusing on personal histories while the GOP is attacking voting records, he sets up for an exploration of internal debates within the strategists’ wing of the Democratic Party:

A debate has broken out among some Democratic officials about the effectiveness — or wisdom — of running such pointedly negative advertisements with five weeks remaining in the campaign. But party strategists did not have the luxury of waiting until the final stretch to go negative, particularly if the goal is to localize races.

Nowhere thereafter does the piece go further than to subtly hint at what that debate is. There are mentions of the risk of going too far in negative campaigning, and questions about the wisdom of going negative, but Zeleny would have served the reader better to explicitly outline—either in his own terms or through reported conversations—the arguments of either side. What are those risks? What are the benefits? What is too far?

If there was ever a case for the usually ubiquitous Times/Post trope of “an unnamed aide said on conditions of anonymity that…”, this would be it. And while the internal debate may not be the entire point of the piece—that’s a difficult thing to put your finger on here—a hashing out of the pros and cons of early negative ads, particularly this year, would be interesting. Instead, Zeleny seems to be saying, trust me, a debate has broken out, but let’s not dwell on it and look at who’s saying what and why; instead, let’s describe the ads and talk a little about how the Republicans are responding to them.

Later in the piece, we’re left to hang again as Zeleny hints at some explanation of why negative ads are so effective for newer candidates. And they are effective, according to Zeleny’s story:

The Democratic ads are like a prosecutor’s case, carrying no rebuttals or countervailing facts. Yet for all the protestations that arise every election year about negative campaigning, there is plenty of evidence that the attacks are effective, particularly against candidates without a deep connection to voters.

Plenty of evidence, sure, somewhere, but not in this piece. Not a stat, not a study, not a “Dr. X from Y research group says ads are effective because…” And certainly no input from man-on-the-street voter Z on how effective it is on their ballot choice. The efficacy of negative campaigning might be a too-obvious point to report out, true—we probably don’t need another generic quote from a Larry Sabato-type to support the claim—but the less-often asserted idea that negative campaigns are particularly effective against newer candidates is not so obvious as to be left to hang in the same fashion. Is there some research or an expert to quote as to why? I assume it’s because newer candidates are blanker canvasses, more easily able to be defined by an opposition campaign. But I’m really just guessing, much as other readers are expected to at this point in the piece.

There are some interesting insights into the nature of negative ads in Zeleny’s report—he’s a solid reporter, as knowledgeable as anyone on his beat—and it works as a survey of what’s being said in several congressional races across the country, and to some extent why it’s being said. But it all feels a little too much like a campaign ad in the end—a bunch of promises, not much delivery.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.