Kurtz: Out, Damn’d Spot

Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz analyzed one of President Bush’s new campaign ads. The ad features patriotic fare such as a family raising the flag and construction workers on the job, as well as more controversial images of the World Trade Center ruins and firefighters carrying a coffin.

It’s obvious that Kurtz doesn’t like the ad, and we can, in part, see why: Its claim that the economy was already in recession in January 2001 is disputed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. But Kurtz also takes issue with the “working” sign behind Bush in the ad, saying that it is “at odds with the net loss of 2.9 million jobs during his term.”

To begin with, the 2.9 million figure that Kurtz cites is actually the total number of private sector jobs lost during Bush’s term; the latest payroll survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a net loss of 2.2 million jobs since early 2001.

But what Kurtz really seems to be missing here is that ads aren’t journalism: Partisan political rhetoric has never been held to the same standard as ostensibly objective reporting. Kurtz, however, treats the ad like Campaign Desk might treat a particularly far-reaching lede, arguing that the spot offers “no substantive claims” to support its nebulous pronouncements that America is “turning the corner” or is “safer” and “stronger” than it used to be.

Kurtz finds the Bush ad wanting in comparison with Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” spot, which mentioned positive news on inflation and jobs to support the idea that the country is better off. But that ad also asserted that the country was “prouder” and “stronger” than it used to be — the same kind of vague, unverifiable claims that are made in the Bush ad.

That’s what ads do — stake out a partisan, one-sided view of the world and try to sell it to the viewer. Bush ads can proclaim the country “stronger” and “safer,” John Kerry is free to run spots claiming that he’s “the real deal,” and Nader ads (if he can afford any) are perfectly free to tell America that he’s the only candidate advocating real change.

Nebulous claims all … but that’s advertising.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.